Saluki men’s basketball prepares for Arch Madness in St. Louis
March 2, 2023
The weekend of March 3-5 will be the defining moment of the 2022-23 Salukis. In the span of three days, they have a chance to cement their place in the history books, or else bow out early like many Southern squads before them.
The Salukis earned the third seed in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, commonly known as “Arch Madness,” by finishing third in the regular season conference standings at 14-6. It marks their highest seed since 2019, and lands them a bye into the quarterfinals.
“We definitely wanted to take a step forward this year as a program,” Mullins said. “Our guys have earned a top four seed in this league and put themselves in position to hopefully have a great weekend here.”
The prize for winning the conference tournament is not only the title itself, but also an automatic bid into the 68-team NCAA Tournament. As a mid-major conference, the Missouri Valley is likely to only have one team represent it in March Madness, meaning that teams will almost certainly need to win the tournament to punch their ticket into the big dance.
Southern Illinois (22-9, 14-6) will begin its quest for a conference title on Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, awaiting the winner of Missouri State (16-14, 12-8) and UIC (12-19, 4-16), which play on Thursday night.
“I think we’ve got a lot left in our tank,” senior forward Marcus Domask told Mike Reis on Saluki Radio. “I think we’re all in a good headspace going into St. Louis, and we all have the same goal.”
While the team benefits from an extra day of rest, it comes with the downside of not knowing who its opponent will be until 24 hours before tipoff. Mullins said that the team prepared for both teams throughout the week.
“All we’re focused on is Friday night,” Mullins said. “It’s a little bit different because we don’t know who we’re gonna play yet, so we’re preparing for both teams. The biggest thing is we’ve got to be who we are and play the way that we’re capable of regardless of the opponent.”
Southern played its regular season finale against UIC on Sunday, so in the event that the Flames advance to face the Salukis on Friday, SIU will be able to carry over its preparation from the week prior into the Arch Madness tournament.
“That helps for sure,” Mullins said. “Rather than playing two opponents that you maybe haven’t played in a month or something like that.”
However, the same could be said for UIC, which would only be one game removed from playing the Salukis on its home court.
No matter who SIU gets paired up against, it will have the advantage of a 2-0 head-to-head record against their opponent, having swept both Missouri State and UIC this season. But the only way that any of that regular season success matters is for the Salukis to capitalize on it in March.
“I think the two games previous don’t mean as much,” Mullins said. “It’s a new season. It’s the postseason now. Everyone’s got a fresh start, so we’ve got to play well.”
In their two games against Missouri State, the Salukis relied heavily on the frontcourt duo of Clarence Rupert and JD Muila. Muila in particular lifted the team up during the first meeting in Springfield, while Rupert became a contributor during the rematch in Carbondale.
Additionally, the second matchup saw Troy D’Amico drop a career-high 15 points, flexing the depth of the team while its stars struggled shooting that night.
“Probably one of his [D’Amico’s] best games in an SIU jersey,” Mullins said after the Feb. 5 Missouri State game. “That’s been our strength all year, is different guys stepping up when we need them to.”
Meanwhile, both games against UIC saw Southern effectively use a spark plug player to its advantage; Scottie Ebube tallied four dunks on Feb. 8 in Carbondale, while Foster Wonders shot 2-for-3 from the three-point line on Feb. 26 in Chicago.
The matchups against UIC had a much heavier emphasis on Marcus Domask and Lance Jones. Domask in particular shot the ball 38 times across the two encounters with the Flames, converting on just 37% of his shots, down from his 43% average in conference play.
Once again, the depth of the team came through in Sunday’s contest against UIC in the form of Dalton Banks. While Banks only scored two points, he dished out five assists, grabbed four rebounds, and tallied three steals to help his team through a close win.
A big difference between SIU’s first and second games against UIC were the turnover margins. On Feb. 8, the Salukis committed 21 turnovers, whereas they gave up just six on Sunday’s rematch.
Despite the combined 4-0 record against the Bears and Flames, three of the four games came down to a four-point margin or fewer. UIC is especially known for playing teams close, despite its 4-16 MVC record, good for the second-worst in the entire conference.
“They’re a very good team,” Jones said during a post-game interview with Saluki Radio on Sunday. “Their record might not show it. We don’t want to downplay anybody. They play every team close, so we just wanted to just come out here with the right mindset.”
Dating back to Senior Night on Feb. 22, Jones and Trent Brown have strung together back-to-back solid performances. As the two best shooters from distance on a team that wishes to play to that strength, the Salukis will need all they can get from the two seniors.
“Lance is a huge part of our team offensively and defensively,” Domask said. “So when he’s playing with confidence and sharing the ball and attacking the cup, he just creates a lot of good things for us.”
Jones dropped his two best point totals in the month of February, with 28 points against Northern Iowa followed by 19 against UIC. Meanwhile, Brown seems to have found his shooting form with 19 combined points across those two games.
“It’s a big time confidence boost,” Brown said after Senior Night. “As shooting goes, as a lot of people know, it’s a confidence game, so that was really big for me.”
On paper, the Salukis seem to have the advantage in either matchup. But with the nature of a win-or-go-home game, all that matters is how a team plays in 40 minutes that night.
“Your guys have just got to have a sense of confidence and trust in each other, and believe that when they step on the court, they’re gonna win the game,” Mullins said.
Southern Illinois would be scheduled to play in the semifinals at 5 p.m. on Saturday if it wins its Friday night game. Landing the late game in the bracket for the first two rounds may play to the team’s benefit, as it is 19-3 this year in games that tip off at 4 p.m. or later. That includes two games played at midnight central time during Thanksgiving Break in 2022.
“We played a couple of really late games out in California,” Mullins said. “It’s a long gameday for coaches, for players, you’re kinda waiting for the game to happen. But I don’t think it makes too much of a difference. If we were playing at 12 or 8:30, our guys would be ready to play.”
Mullins also noted how the late time slot on Friday could potentially help the Salukis in terms of fan turnout. He has talked up the fanbase nearly every chance he’s had since his introductory press conference in 2019, and that support could provide another benefit with the tournament site being just under a two-hour drive away from Carbondale.
“St. Louis, Arch Madness has been special for this community, for this fanbase,” Mullins said. “They’ve done an unbelievable job always representing our program. And with an 8:30 game, maybe that’s the benefit of playing late on a Friday. Everyone can still go to work or leave work early and still make the game, and hopefully make it a little bit of a home court advantage for us.”
While it’s the biggest weekend of Bryan Mullins’s tenure as the head coach of Saluki men’s basketball, he’s no stranger to the pressure that comes with a do-or-die tournament scenario. Mullins was famously part of the mid-2000’s SIU teams, including the last team to cut down the nets in St. Louis in 2006.
“Anything can happen,” Mullins said. “It’s not a seven-game series with any of these teams. Each year, going into this thing, you have that hope, that optimism… we can get on a roll here for a couple games in a row. It’s exciting. I don’t think there’s any nerves.”
After a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament the following year, the Salukis have rarely been closer than they are now to reaching that pinnacle once again. Southern’s 22 overall wins and 14 conference wins this season can’t be beat by any mark set in the last 15 years dating back to that 2007 season.
More recently, Mullins was on the coaching staff of Loyola Chicago during its 2018 Final Four run a year before being hired by Southern Illinois. The Ramblers, who were in the MVC until this year, became the gold standard of mid-major Cinderella teams by joining a three-way tie as the lowest-seeded team to ever reach the Final Four.
Southern’s Cinderella magic extends beyond just the coaching staff. Sophomore forward Clarence Rupert spent his March 2022 dancing into the Elite 8 with Saint Peter’s after the Peacocks went on a seven-game stretch of winning their own conference tournament and taking March Madness by storm.
“That was the goal from the jump, to make it to the [NCAA] Tournament,” Rupert said in September. “I’ve been watching that tournament since forever, so for me to make it that far and actually to play in it was a real blessing for me.”
Anything can happen when the calendar flips to March. But while the allure of a historic bracket-busting run might be fun to imagine for the Maroon and White, the philosophy remains the same as it always has been.
“I think the only way to have success in a conference tournament is to take it one game at a time,” Mullins said. “… There’s no point in trying to win three games before you win one.”
On Wednesday, the Missouri Valley Conference gave out several awards, including naming its All-Conference teams for the 2022-23 season. Highlighting that list was Marcus Domask being named to the All-Valley First Team, along with Lance Jones on the All-MVC Third Team, and Jones and Xavier Johnson getting All-Defensive nods.
Domask has never been one to brag about himself, and the former multi-time All-MVC Second Teamer has enough individual accomplishments to last him a lifetime. Even dating back to the beginning of the season, his attention has always been on this upcoming weekend.
“At this point in my career, I feel like it’s really just a ring, is all I really want,” Domask said in October. “Obviously the accolades are cool, but I feel like all that comes with winning, so my focus is just on winning.”
Now, the time has finally come for this team, the best Carbondale has seen in 15 years, to stake its claim in one of the toughest leagues in college basketball. No matter what happens, the 2022-23 Salukis will be remembered for their talent and potential. But whether or not they are remembered for their success will only be determined by how they perform over the first weekend of March.
An entire season comes down to three days. This is March.
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.