By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
One year ago, almost to the day, the Billikens drove across the border and into Carbondale, where they had what can only be defined as their worst let down game of the season. Coming off of an emotional win at home over Butler. They simply dropped the ball, losing to Southern Illinois 61-54.
Both teams had significant changes to their roster in the offseason. Still, the Billikens have an opportunity to get a little bit of revenge.
Both teams come to St. Louis on high notes. SLU comes into Sunday’s game on a three-game winning streak, including two statements wins over Belmont and Boston College, whereas SIUC is coming off a win over North Carolina Central. The win over NCC was just the Salukis third of the year and snapped a four-game losing skid.
The Salukis are in for a tough year. The team is returning just two key players, graduating six seniors, including their three top scorers. And to pile onto those personnel problems, Southern Illinois has a new head coach. After eight seasons in Carbondale, Barry Hinson was effectively relieved of his duties after last season for failing to make the NCAA or NIT tournaments. Hinson was given an ultimatum at the beginning of the 2018-2019 season and stepped down when he was unable to achieve the goal of post-season tournament play.
Replacing him is rookie head coach Bryan Mullins. An SIUC alumni who played a crucial part in the Saluki’s 2007 Sweet 16 run. He previously served as an assistant Loyola-Chicago, so he is very familiar with the Missouri Valley Conference.
All of the turnover and change at Southern Illinois has left the expectations for the Salukis at a low. SIUC was picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference and is not expected to make much noise in their non-conference schedule.
Aaron Cook and Eric McGill lead the Salukis on the court and are the two key returners that support the roster. Each average over 30 minutes played a night. Though, the news only gets worse for SIUC as Aaron Cook will not be available in the game at Chaifetz Arena as he has a broken hand.
A tandem of newcomers has stepped in to play a significant role for Bryan Mullins’s squad. Freshman forward, Marcus Domask, leads the team in minutes played and has stood out as a freshmen contributor being only one of 10 freshmen nationally who average at least 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. Additionally, graduate transfer Barett Benson, who joins the Salukis after playing three seasons at Northwestern, adds 12.7 points a game on 67.9% shooting, good for 11th best in the nation.
As a team, SIUC follows the lead of its head coach, who is a former two-time MVC player of the year. The Salukis mentality is to lead with their defense. They are incredibly disciplined, fouling just 13.7 times per game (15th best nationally), and they defend the perimeter well as opponents shoot only 28.5% from distance. Overall the Salukis allow just 61.1 points per game, an impressive stat from the undermanned team.
The Salukis, though, have not faced a team like the Billikens.
Saint Louis has used their physical presence to their advantage all season and has faced very few (one) teams who can match up with them in that sense. At this point in the season, the Billikens are the best team the Salukis have faced, so the stats are a little skewed. The Billikens should be able to dominate this game, using their size and their depth to punish the Salukis.
The real test for Sunday afternoon is if the Billikens can return their offense to a place where they thought it was early in the season. Since opening the season with three consecutive 80-point appearances, the offense has struggled mightily, failing to crack even 70 points in the four subsequent games.
The defense made the turn Travis Ford had hoped for, but the once freewheeling, shot-making offense has been replaced with one that is stagnant, hesitant, and slow. Part of their issue has been moderate shooting woes. However, the majority of the problem comes from a lack of spacing that the Billikens are still looking to solve.
The SIUC matchup provides the Billikens an opportunity to get back on track. The Bills will have the advantage in both the physical and talent matchup. While they certainly cannot overlook any game, it may be an opportunity to try new things and play more freely. If Saint Louis can use this matchup to tune-up the offense in preparation for an exhausting gauntlet of games to come, then the likely win will be even more valuable.
The Billikens had as good a November as they could have hoped for. As the calendar turns to December, nothing gets easier. It is essential to get an excellent start to the month in this very winnable game.