Team Profile: 2006 BracketBuster Preview: Louisiana Tech at Southern Illinois

by Andrew Force | February 11th, 2006

How is a Tall Tale started? A man completes a tremendous feat of an implausible nature and then witnesses exaggerate the telling to elevate the ordinary everyman to superhero status. Axe-wielding Paul Bunyan, Green Party-inspiring Johnny Appleseed, and wolf-raised Pecos Bill all fit the bill. It’s time to add to the list Louisiana Tech forward Paul Millsap.

Not an extravagant leader, Millsap is an everyman with hardhat work ethic. While the Louisiana media’s outlandish acclaim for this Bulldog may be slightly irrational, the numbers you see him putting up are all too real. The Saluki coaches may be watching game tape wondering how one man gets to so many rebounds. Sure Paul is big and strong. How else did he earn his Tall Tale status? But does size collect him 12 rebounds a night?

Southern Illinois had a tall task of its own prior to this season in replacing two three-year starters. Programs in the Missouri Valley Conference don’t reload–well, they’re not supposed to. You lose two-time Valley Player of the Year Darren Brooks, the expectation level dips. The same situation arose a few years ago when SIU graduated all-time scoring leader Kent Williams and Jermaine Dearman in the same class. Despite the wholesale changes, the Egyptian dogs of Carbondale bounded along. This year, SIU again refuses to take anticipated steps backward.

And so begins the hype for one the BracketBuster’s most anticipated matchups. Two teams as recently as January 31st dominated their respective conferences. Both teams dropped back-to-back games as wall calendars were unceremoniously flipped to February. Each school found itself no longer looking down on its peers but rather middling amongst the masses. Similarities, though, are sparse and an age-old dichotomy emerges: big versus small. Southern Illinois features solid, ball-hawking guards while Louisiana Tech brings the nation’s best rebounder to the fight.

Many times a game is lost rather than won. Should that situation arise in this Bracket Buster matchup, look for these key points. SIU-C held serve on its homecourt for several years. Members of the Valley dreaded making the trek down to Carbondale, as 43 straight games saw the visitors leave with an L. Indiana State ended both the home conference streak and the overall home run earlier this month. Despite this setback the aura of SIU Arena still exists. As of February 10th, SIU at home (9-1) is markedly better then La Tech is away from home (5-6).

Both teams are solid and for the benefit of the TV audience, it would be nice for the game to come down to the last few minutes. In late-game situations you always look at free throw percentages and go-to players. For the Salukis, Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young handle the lion’s share of the possessions. Especially in critical, close battles, expect these backcourt mates to control tempo.

Tatum knocks down the free tosses at an 80% clip, and Young is virtually automatic with a percentage above 90. Not unique to SIU, the Saluki bigs struggle at the line and are a serious liability if Louisiana Tech is able to foul them in an emergency. The Bulldogs have nowhere near the same success at the foul line. Only one player on the LA Tech squad even hits at better then 2/3.

The storyline is obvious. How well does Louisiana Tech feed the post? With more shots made on the season than the next three Bulldogs combined, Tall Paul certainly stands to get post opportunities. Expect the constrictive guards of SIU to make the entry feeds as difficult as possible. SIU has an overall balanced attack but relies heavily on triples. Strength and effort on the defensive boards will enable the Salukis to pull through in this battle of upper division teams.

After defeating Creighton in Omaha over the weekend, Southern Illinois was headed for lock status. But that lock was picked when the Salukis couldn’t follow it up with a win in Peoria on Tuesday. Louisiana Tech, playing in a weaker conference, must win to have any chance at an at-large bid.

Tall tales generally gather steam and perpetuate themselves over time. The eagerness of storytellers to expound, to enhance the legend is ever-present. For this reason, Paul Millsap, the rebound monster, will grow in stature following this game. The concern for Saluki fans is whether SIU will be remembered as the tiny Valley school Paul stomped, or as a fresh, young team with the heart of a dog. This dog already let one intruder into Saluki Arena this year…but no more.

Prediction: Southern Illinois 70, Louisiana Tech 63. Millsap goes for 22 & 14.

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