ST. LOUIS — The turning point in Southern Illinois’ season is easy to find. The Salukis journeyed from total embarrassment to healing victory in three days.
“We were extremely fragile,” SIU coach Barry Hinson said. “We got beat by 36 on the road and I got ejected.”
On Feb. 2, ninth-place Illinois State routed 10th-place SIU 83-47 and the Salukis appeared to be on track for the predicted miserable season. Under-sized and overmatched, they slumped to 1-10 in the Missouri Valley Conference. On Feb. 5, they upset then-No. 22 Wichita State 64-62 at SIU Arena to start a stretch of six wins in eight games.
Tenth-seeded SIU (14-16) plays seventh-seeded Missouri State (10-21) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday in an MVC Tournament play-in game. The winner plays second-seeded WSU (24-7) at 6 p.m. Friday at the Scottrade Center.
Fans credit Hinson’s two technical fouls in the final 40 seconds with charging up his team. While that protest showed his players he still wanted to fight, Hinson points to his coaching staff’s patient approach after that game. He relied on three pages of notes from a 45-minute conversation with Indiana assistant coach Tim Buckley to help him through a difficult transition. Indiana coach Tom Crean took over a program in the dumps on and off the court in 2008 and persevered. Hinson needed advice. Making the players believe winning ranked as the top priority, no matter the record, topped the list. The Salukis, beaten down by years of losing and instability, needed that help.
“After the Illinois State game we just took an approach that we were going to be as positive as we could be,” Hinson said. “We were going to grade them on their attitude and their effort and not look at a scoreboard.”
Hinson and his staff refers to Buckley’s guide often. Indiana coaches never let losing stop them from teaching and preparing to win every game.
“I knew it was going to be a really big struggle for us,” he said. “Had I not talked to Tim at Indiana, I don’t think we would have had the same results.”
SIU trailed WSU by 17 points in the first half before things started going its way. It won by two points — on a controversial goaltending call. After a 66-65 loss at Indiana State, the Salukis won their next two. They bring a three-game win streak to St. Louis.
SIU’s defense and slow pace played a large role in turning the season around. After allowing Illinois State to score 83 points, SIU hasn’t allowed a conference opponent to score more than 66 points. It held Creighton to 59 points and 2-of-9 three-point shooting. Northern Iowa shot 37.7 percent from the field in a 63-57 loss.
The Salukis play man-to-man defense, but switch players more than most teams. Mismatches created by switches don’t bother them as much as most teams, because their starting lineup contains four guards of similar height and ability. Hinson’s preference is to play defense in a more traditional manner, but this works for this team. SIU uses its quickness to create turnovers, leading the MVC in steals (7.4 a game) and turnover margin (plus-2.6) in the past nine games.
“They’ve played about as inspired and solid basketball as you could play over the last month,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. “The turnovers they force create offense for them.”
Better offense makes it easier to play hard on defense. In Hinson’s view, the Salukis’ improvement on defense started when players made a few shots and played with more energy.
“People were zoning us a lot early because we couldn’t score,” Hinson said. “Now when we see a zone our guys get excited. Our perimeter play has been so much better.”
WSU’s Wiggins on All-Bench Team — Shocker junior Nick Wiggins averaged 5.4 points and made 43 percent of his three-pointers to earn a spot on the MVC’s All-Bench Team.
Creighton’s Ethan Wragge was named the team captain. Southern Illinois guard Jeff Early was named team captain on the Most-Improved Team.
MVC All-Bench Team
Ethan Wragge, Creighton; D.J. Balentine, Evansville; Matt Bohannon, Northern Iowa; Nathan Scheer, Missouri State; Khristian Smith, Indiana State; Nick Wiggins, Wichita State; Most-Improved Team; Jeff Early, Southern Illinois; Austin Chatman, Creighton; Johnny Hill, Illinois State; Walt Lemon Jr., Bradley; Dyricus Simms-Edwards, Bradley.