David vs Goliath; Southern Illinois looks to take down Loyola-Chicago

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Nicole Tillberg | @nicoletillberg315

Southern Illinois Salukis face off against the Evansville Purple Aces during the mens basketball game at the SIU Banterra Canter. The game ended 53 to 70 with SIU takeing the win on Thursday night, February 20, 2020.

The Southern Illinois men’s basketball team (10-9; MVC 3-4) will take on the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (14-3; MVC 5-1) on Tuesday, Jan. 25, and on Thursday, Jan 27. The first is to be played on the road in Chicago, where the second takes place in the Banterra Center. 

The game on the 27th was originally supposed to take place on Jan. 2, but COVID regulations forced the MVC to delay the game. 

Southern Illinois is currently coming off a 70-62 loss to the Bradley Braves on Saturday. Head Coach Bryan Mullins said the Salukis struggled on both sides of the court, all night long. 

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“In the first half we didn’t play good enough defense and in the second half we didn’t play good enough offense. The ball stuck too much and we couldn’t defend their top guys,” Mullins said. 

However, the Salukis are back at it and ready to get a chance at the number one team in the conference to regain its momentum. The Ramblers also recently gained the #22 ranking in the country. 

The Ramblers recently lost to Missouri State, 79-69 on Saturday. This was their first conference loss of the season. 

Junior guard Steven Verplancken said they understand who their opponent is, but they have faith they can take the Ramblers down. 

“We have a lot of respect for who we go against, but we also know we can beat anybody. The amount that both the players and coaches puts in gives us a lot of confidence,” Verplancken said. 

Mullins said these next few conference games will be vital to test where the Salukis are in its development. 

“Our team is already ready for the next opportunity. You can’t keep looking in the past in this league, because you will always have another challenge right in front of you,” Mullins said. 

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Loyola-Chicago has made the tournament twice in the past four years (2018 and 2021), along with an appearance in the NIT tournament in 2019. Freshman forward Foster Wonders said the Salukis know they are going up against a small-school powerhouse. 

“Loyola has been the standard in this conference in the last couple years. That’s what everyone in this conference is striving to be,” Wonders said. 

During its appearance to the tournament in 2018, the Ramblers had cemented themselves in college basketball history as one of the best Cinderella stories. 

Despite being an 11 seed, Loyola-Chicago made it all the way to the Final Four and was a second half away from making it to the National Championship. However, Michigan managed to rally a comeback and defeat the Cinderella team. 

Verplancken said Loyola-Chicago’s success in the tournament gives smaller schools hope to make it deep into March, just like the Ramblers did. 

“It really puts it into perspective. We’ve seen that, in this league, there are a lot of teams that are good enough to make it deep into March Madness,” Verplancken said. 

The Ramblers were the first Missouri Valley Conference team to make the Final Four since the 2014 Wichita State Shockers (now in the American Athletic Conference). The second-most-recent team leads all the way back to 1979, to the Larry Bird-led Indiana State Sycamores. 

Although Loyola-Chicago currently sits at 14-3 and 5-1 in the Missouri Valley, the rest of the conference has been incredibly competitive. Mullins said it will be very important the players are focused and ready heading into the new week. 

“We need to get everyone going in the right direction because things aren’t going to get easier in Chicago,” Mullins said. 

Wonders said a win against a Goliath in the conference could put SIU ahead of the curve. 

“Because Loyola is at the top of the Missouri Valley, a win against them would be huge for us and definitely raise our confidence,” Wonders said. 

Verplancken said these two games against Loyola might be the most important of the season, as it’s against the top team in the conference and is right in the middle of the conference schedule. A victory would give a maximum amount of momentum for the team going forward. 

“This league is great because anybody can beat anybody. To go on the road, then play at home and get two big wins would be huge,” Verplancken said. 

Head coach Porter Moser built the Ramblers’ program from the ground up. However, last off-season, Moser left to take the job at Oklahoma University, leaving Assistant Coach Drew Valentine with the new job. 

Despite Valentine being a first-year head coach, Wonders said this gives SIU no clear advantage because he has been around basketball at many different schools for so many years. 

“He definitely knows the game of basketball well, plus he’s got a good team around him,” Wonders said. 

Because the game was originally canceled due to COVID complications, SIU has had extra practices and games to prepare themselves. Verplancken said it could be another advantage for the Dawgs. 

“We kind of have a lot of games here because so many got rescheduled. But at the same time there was some rust that we had to shake off when we started conference. There are definitely pluses and minuses,” Verplancken said. 

Mullins said his team has all the intangibles that help Southern Illinois compete with anyone on any day when his staff has them right. 

“We want to make sure our guys are mentally and physically present. As a coaching staff we need to find that right balance of rest and giving them the information they need,” Mullins said. 

The Ramblers are introducing a new era to the program. Not only do they have a new coach to fill the mold, but they will be leaving the Missouri Valley Conference after this season. 

Loyola-Chicago has decided they will play its next few seasons in the Atlantic 10 Conference. 

Verplancken said that ‘leaving Loyola with something to remember them by’ is on every Saluki basketball players’ mind. 

“That would feel great for our team to get two huge wins against them in what could be our last matchups with them. We want to leave them with something they won’t forget,” Verplancken said. 

Sports Reporter Cole Daily can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at cdaily_de

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