CARBONDALE, Ill. —It took Southern Illinois two months to get whole and show that a roster of healthy, eligible athletes makes a difference.
Does that mean the Salukis won't finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference? Does it mean they can shock everyone and finish in the upper half? In these early days of a wacky MVC race, anything seems possible.
"Two weeks ago, we were the worst thing on two wheels," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "Now it's different. This team does what we've asked them to, and that's why we've shown signs of getting better, better play than we've had in the last two years."
Wichita State (11-3, 2-1 MVC) gets its first look at rejuvenated SIU (5-9, 2-1) today at SIU Arena.
The Salukis started the season with a loss to NCAA Division II Ohio Dominican. They started to play better in Hawaii, losing to Clemson (in overtime) and to Xavier. MVC play started with 16-point loss at Evansville before the Salukis rebounded with wins over Illinois State and at Bradley.
"It's unfortunate that they had the guys missing games during the non-conference," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "Now, their RPI is down, but they're a team that's really playing well. They're dangerous."
SIU is one of six MVC teams tied for first. The Salukis started to improve when the roster stabilized in late December. Five players missed at least a game due to injury, sickness, suspension or academics.
"Everything is clicking," SIU guard Justin Bocot said. "It might have taken a little bit, but I think we've got it together now."
While Lowery isn't ready to call this a turnaround, this revival is a relief. SIU went 13-19 last season, its third straight non-winning season. It hasn't compiled a winning MVC record since 2008.
After three seasons of turmoil and recruiting misses, he feels as if he is competing on solid ground again. Starting point guard Kendal Brown-Surles and forward Davante Drinkard both missed six games while they worked on academics. Bocot missed four while suspended for an off-the-court incident. Freshman forward Dantiel Daniels, who scored 22 points against Xavier, missed three games with a pulled groin.
"We are getting a chance to work together on a daily basis," Lowery said. "We are starting to see a level of consistency."
The return of Daniels and Drinkard means senior Mamadou Seck, SIU's top scorer, no longer guards centers or plays offense in the post. Seck, who averages 13.4 points, can handle the ball against pressure as a forward and doesn't deal with double-teams from defenses.
"He can really face the basket well," Marshall said. "He drives it so effectively."
The full roster and consistent practice shows up in several areas for the Salukis. SIU shot 50 percent or better once in non-conference play. It made 50.8 percent of its shots against Illinois State and 57.4 against Bradley. Opponents shot 24 or more free throws nine times in SIU's first 12 games. In the past two, Illinois State shot 16 and Bradley 15.
"If our offense is going well, we play better defense," Bocot said. "Most of the teams that were beating us... they shot a whole lot of free throws."