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Southern Illinois Salukis

by Andrew Force | January 3rd, 2007

Team personality: Defense wins championships. A common phrase in sports that is not commonly executed. SIU won four straight regular season Valley championships from 2001 to 2005 with the unbending defense providing the backbone. This year is no different. Tony Young and Jamaal Tatum disallow so much in the backcourt. The arm strength of frontcourt members is reminiscent of arm wrestling champions of years’ past.

To beat SIU, opponents will have to dig deep down physically and mentally. The game will not flow smoothly. That harsh reality is by design. The Salukis hang their hat on toughness and determination.

Biggest Games: Starting Febraury 3rd, SIU plays three tournament teams in 10 days. The first step in the midseason minefield is a trip to Charles Koch Arena to play a former, and potentially future, top 10 team in Wichita State. Hosting Creighton, the pre-season conference favorite, a week later is no picnic. And no team would enjoy encountering the outraged, spurned Bears of Missouri State (Feb. 13).

Add to that hellish gauntlet a surprisingly talented Bradley team coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, and these 10 days will decide SIU’s conference standing, MVC tournament seed, and ultimately placing in the NCAA tournament.

Has to be on the floor: The best tandem of on-ball defenders in the Valley is Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young. The two might be the best in the country.

Tatum gets up into his man. Using his strong frame, he disallows penetration. Most guards can not even get their head up while dealing with Tatum’s attacking defense. He sets the tone on D at the top of the key or on the wing. His leadership by example is integral for a team that traditionally leads the MVC in field goal defense.

Crunchtime crutch: The flavor of the week defense for contending with the Salukis is a 1-3-1 zone. SIU has the shooters and the patience to shred this zone. Regardless, the guards tend to be hesitant to feed the post at times.

The onus is on Randal Falker and Matt Shaw to create a feasible target for the guards down low. An over-reliance on perimeter passing and outside shooting is a hurdle a winning Saluki team needs to avert.

Last shot: Lead guard Bryan Mullins will have the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his 4+ assists per game. As for the shooter in a critical scenario, any of a number of players could be called upon. Tony Young is the best outside shooter, but bull-strong forward Matt Shaw has expanded his arsenal to include 3-point shooting.

Young hit two game winners last year, while Mullins sent SIU to overtime in the MVC Tourney semi-final tussle with Northern Iowa. Tatum sent a heated battle at Wichita State to overtime with a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.

The only certainty is that Mullins will place someone in a position to succeed. Guessing the successor is the oppositions’ problem.

Straw that stirs the drink: Matt Shaw. Every other player on the team plays his position. Shaw steps outside the prototypical power forward role. Sure he rebounds with tenacity and fights for position in the blocks. The difference is his outside shooting which is starting to really take form. He knocked down 26 triples a year ago. Before the hefty 2007 portion descended, Shaw already had 17 converted this year.

On defense he is constantly switching off his man to help a teammate. Generally the teammate was caught on a screen. There is no scream of “help” rather a silent acknowledgment by Shaw of the team needs.

Impact newcomer: On a team stacked with veterans, it is difficult for any newcomers to earn consistent minutes. In the first eight games only one fresh face even remotely contributed. JuCo transfer Tyrone Green got on the floor for double digit minutes five times in the first 10 games. The junior is an athlete with showtime hops, but his overall game is still a little rough around the edges.

Joshua Bone made his college debut just before Christmas after recovering from a broken bone in his foot. Over the course of the season, he will undoubtedly be the impact newcomer. A 6’3” guard, Bone won four high school state championships in Tennessee playing alongside North Carolina freshman Brandan Wright. Any person who wins 109 HS games brings coveted winning attitude to your system.

Potential pitfall: “Sometimes he is so unselfish, he may over-pass.” Unquestioned leader Jamaal Tatum described guard Bryan Mullins last year with a phrase that actually encompasses the entire Saluki guard ranks. Tony Young, Mullins, and Tatum all share the ball amazingly well. There are no egos on the perimeter. It is beautiful to witness in a “me-first” era of basketball.

Coach Chris Lowery preaches, take the open shot. In the starting ranks, four players can hit mid to deep shots when uncontested. There will surely be possessions where courage is demanded. Hopefully, for SIU’s sake, a player will step forward at these times.

How to reach Sweet 16: Be yourself. Didn’t your mom always tell you that?

SIU has the talent, makeup, coaching, and drive to make the Sweet 16. The most important aspect of SIU basketball for years now is hard-nosed halfcourt defense. Taking pride in defense is a rare skill. It is just hard for a coach to get all five guys on the floor to care about moving side to side and keeping your hands up and active.

Southern Illinois does care about the minutiae. Barring unforeseen lapses in the steady, gritty defense, SIU can definitely beat two teams in the NCAA draw.–Andrew Force

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