“A ring is all I really want:” Saluki men’s basketball expected to take the next step in 2023

October 29, 2022

Saluki men’s basketball finished right in the middle of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) last season. They went 16-15 overall, going undefeated against teams lower than them in the conference standings but only winning one game against the top five teams in the league.

Entering the 2022-23 season, Southern Illinois is projected to place 3rd in the MVC according to the conference’s preseason poll. They received a first-place vote, along with Bradley who the Salukis narrowly trail. Drake is currently viewed as the frontrunner, receiving 52 of 54 first-place votes in the poll.

Despite these higher expectations, the players believe they still have to earn that distinction on the court. One of those players is senior guard Lance Jones, a former all-conference and all-defensive team selection.

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“Preseason polls don’t really mean anything,” Jones said. “I feel like we’ve still got a lot to prove. I feel like we definitely have the pieces to be successful this year.”

Of the team’s nine conference losses in 2022, five of them ended within a two-possession margin. Head coach Bryan Mullins believes winning those close games is going to determine how successful the Salukis are this season.

“The Valley is such a grind-it-out league where there’s gonna be so many one-to-two-possession games,” Mullins said. “You’ve got to be able to find a way to win those ones.”

The Salukis have not won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship since their stretch of five championships in six years ended in 2007. Mullins played for those mid-2000’s teams, putting together a Hall of Fame career as the Saluki point guard.

“I want to be the best version of ourselves,” Mullins said. “There is no ceiling on what we can do. For us, it’s about getting better every single day.”

It’s been 15 years since the program last hung a banner at Banterra Center. For senior forward Marcus Domask, it’s the ultimate goal.

“At this point in my career, I feel like it’s really just a ring, is all I really want,” Domask said. “Obviously the accolades are cool, but I feel like all that comes with winning, so my focus is just on winning.”

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Domask was named to the preseason All-Conference First Team, along with Jones who earned Second Team honors. They came up as freshmen along with Trent Brown in Mullins’ first year as head coach in 2019. That consistency and stability in the program has helped those three develop into the players they are now.

“We know what coach wants,” Domask said. “We know what he expects. We know the defensive tendencies, offensive tendencies and all that. I think we just kinda act like coaches on the court as well now.”

Jones says the senior trio has developed a connection on the court, having spent four years together.

“We know what we’re good at,” Jones said. “We know our strengths and weaknesses. We kinda just have that bond, being together four years, and sticking it out and trusting the process with this team and the coaching staff.”

While the players are entering their final seasons, Mullins plans to stay at his alma mater much longer. He views that stability as something that will help bolster the program he wants to have at Southern Illinois.

“To build a championship program and not just a championship team, you’ve got to have continuity within your program…” Mullins said. “Just making sure we have the right people in the locker room is so important.”

SIU will have to replace the production of guards Ben Coupet Jr. and Steven Verplancken Jr., both starters on last year’s team. Coupet graduated, while Verplancken transferred to Weber State. It is expected that incoming senior transfers Xavier Johnson and Jawaun Newton, from George Mason and Evansville respectively, will carry at least part of that load.

However, Mullins says the lineup and rotation are not quite set yet and will continue to be tweaked even as the season progresses.

“I think that’ll take, probably the first month of the season even,” Mullins said. “We’ve got the most depth we’ve probably had in the last couple years, so we’ve got a lot of different guys that can contribute, and I think different guys will help us win different games. Everyone’s gotta be ready to go.”

The Salukis will play an exhibition game against Alabama this Saturday as they work up towards their regular season opener on Nov. 7.

“We’ve got some things we’ve got to work on,” Mullins said. “We’ve got a couple scrimmages and exhibition games coming up that I think will help us prepare for the first real game.”

Most teams are optimistic about the beginning of a new year. This Saluki has lofty goals, but if everything goes right, it may have what it takes to reach heights not seen since 2007.

“I expect to win conference and win games in the NCAA Tournament,” Domask said. “That’s our goal, that’s why we’re here. That’s what I expect from these guys, what I expect from myself, and that’s what we’re gonna try to do.”

 

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. 

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