Tuesday night did not go as planned in Indianapolis.
Duke landed multiple haymakers on their way to an absolute beatdown of Kentucky in primetime on ESPN in the Champions Classic. On one of the few nights where everyone in the country is paying attention to college basketball before March hits, UK laid an egg and got embarrassed by a more talented team.
However, the good thing about the sport of basketball is that you don’t have to wait too long to get back on the hardwood. Now just a few days later the Wildcats will be opening up the home slate in Rupp Arena on a Friday night with SEC Network in town.
UK got exposed in the opener with their defense not giving them a shot to win and bad shot selection turning a potential respectable deficit into a laughingstock. After being blistered under the bright lights, we are now about to find out just what kind of fight this basketball team has.
Nuts and Bolts
SIU head coach Barry Hinson is entering his seventh season in Carbondale and this year he has his best shot at making an NCAA Tournament. The Oklahoma State grad ran the basketball programs at Oral Roberts and Missouri State, but has yet to make the Big Dance. In nine years at Missouri State, Hinson got the Bears to four NIT appearances but other than that the career .500 coach has spent the month of March at home.
After three consecutive losing seasons to start his career at SIU, Barry Hinson has slowly pointed things in the right direction the last three years. The Salukis have won at least 17 games in each year including two years with at least 11 conference victories in the Missouri Valley. With all five starters returning this season, the Salukis were picked to finish third in the MVC this preseason.
The former Division II program has made 10 NCAA Tournaments since making the job to the top division. Three times the Salukis have made in to the second weekend and that most recently happened in 2007.
This is a job that has proven to be a quality stepping stone for aspiring coaches. Both Bruce Weber and Matt Painter used an NCAA berth at SIU as a spring board to land a Big Ten job. When you get it right in Carbondale, the Salukis can consistently compete for Missouri Valley titles.
Entering the season, expectations are for this basketball team to compete for the MVC automatic bid. Loyola (IL) is obviously the talk of the league after their memorable run to the Final Four behind the power of Sister Jean last season and they are clearly the team to beat. However, it is wide open after and with a very experienced roster SIU figures to be a very competitive mid-major all season.
Over at KenPom, Southern Illinois enters tonight’s game ranked 86th in the country. This will be SIU’s only game against a team from a power conference this season and it appears that the schedule is setup for them to collect a lot of wins. UK should expect a spirited effort from a very savvy group.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is currently a 17-point favorite with a total of 148.5. That’s a projected final score of 83-66. This will not be a cakewalk for the Wildcats.
On the perimeter, it starts with senior guard Armon Fletcher. The Edwardsville, Illinois native was a second team All-MVC member last season. The wing/off guard put up 14 points and 5 rebounds per game on his way to a very productive season. Fletcher was SIU’s leading scorer and did a really good job getting to the free throw line. He can step behind the arc and be a shooting threat. His athleticism will challenge UK’s current inability to guard the bounce.
Joining Armon Fletcher will be point guard Aaron Cook. The grad transfer from Saint Louis led the team in three-point shooting and was second on the squad in steals. Along with Cook, SIU has two more solid perimeter weapons in Marcus Bailey and Sean Lloyd.
Marcus Bailey may be the team’s best pure point guard and he’ll be the first player off the bench at Rupp Arena. Sean Lloyd is the team’s best defensive player and will be asked to play down low in SIU’s small ball style.
Much like Duke, SIU will spread the floor against Kentucky’s defense and try to beat the Wildcats off the dribble drive. If the Wildcats aren’t able to corral the basketball and communicate, SIU could get good looks for their solid outside shooters all game long.
Southern Illinois doesn’t get big very often, but that doesn’t mean they just ignore the paint. Down low, senior Kavion Pippen is the nephew of Scottie Pippen and he was outstanding in his first season over from junior college.
The 6-foot-10, 245-pound big from Arkansas put up 12 points and six rebounds last season for SIU and most are expecting a big jump from him this season. The senior shot .551 percent from the field and was able to provide the defense with much needed rim protection. He is this squad’s most important player.
Behind Kavion Pippen there are some big question marks but SIU is catching a big break. Thik Bol (yes, that’s a real name) missed last year due to knee issues but appears ready to go for this season. The senior put up nine points and seven rebounds the previous season and has a chance to be one college basketball’s best shot blockers if he can stay healthy.
The Salukis won’t use very many bigs but they have two very good ones in Kavion Pippen and Thik Bol. Both are anchors on defense in the paint and can challenge UK’s bigs with their backs to the basket.
Keys to Victory
- Kentucky will enter the game with the most talent and ability, but they’ll be facing an opponent that won’t back down. Southern Illinois has a wealth of experience at each spot on the floor and they won’t be intimidated by Kentucky’s raw talent and the bright lights of Rupp Arena. The Salukis will give Kentucky their best shot and the Wildcats must match the underdog’s intensity.
- On defense, Kentucky was exposed off the bounce against Duke and this is the exact style of offense they’ll see Southern Illinois utilize. The Salukis have shooting and athleticism on the perimeter with one big hanging out down low. The Wildcats must show significant improvement in how they guard drives. If they don’t, the Salukis could hang around for the entire 40 minutes.
- Much like last game, Reid Travis will have a major advantage in the low post. Kentucky must get him touches there before the first media timeout. SIU is very thin on the frontline and with any foul trouble this game could get ugly.
- Playing against a veteran group that is guard heavy, it will be another major challenge for UK’s point guards. After struggling in the opener, one really needs to step up and take control of the team. The Cats need either Ashton Hagans or Immanuel Quickley to move the ball on offense and pressure it on defense.
There is no where else to go here. This question must finally be answered. What in the world is a Saluki?
SIU’s very unique mascot is known around the world and us here in the Big Blue Nation deserve to know the answer. After a quick YouTube search, I’ve found the answer and I have no idea why any school would pick this.
Apparently, the southern part of Illinois has always been known as “Little Egypt”. The saluki breed is the Royal Dog of Egypt. Therefore, it made a perfect match.
The more you know.