Leave a Comment
A Daily Egyptian retrospective: the 2007 Sweet Sixteen
March 11, 2023
Jamaal Tatum. Randal Falker. Tony Young. Matt Shaw. Bryan Mullins. Chris Lowery.
If you’re a longtime Daily Egyptian reader, many of these names are a bit of a blast from the past. It’s been 16 years since these names were all together here at SIU.
These men and several others were preparing for a run into the NCAA Tournament. The Dawgs made a run all the way into the Sweet 16 and almost knocked off Kansas, who was a number one seed and heavily favored in the game.
That season was the last time SIU made the NCAA tournament, and it was the end of one of the most successful runs in school history.
Some of the sports writers at the Daily Egyptian who covered this legendary team include Scott Mieszala, Sean McGahan, Alejandro Gonzalez, Max Bittle and Joe Lacdan. These writers produced several pieces that provided deep analysis of the program as it raced towards the tournament, and this article will be citing many of the stories they wrote at that time.
To set the scene: the Salukis spent the last six weeks of the regular season in the Associated Press poll, ranked as high as number 11 in the AP Poll and number 11 in the coaches poll. Their 29-7 [15-3 MVC] record was good enough to win their ninth regular season title, and they went undefeated at home, continuing an amazing streak of losing only one home game over the previous five seasons.
The team was decorated with impressive talent, up and down the roster. Falker, Young and Mullins were all MVC All-Defense First Team members, with Falker even winning MVC Defensive MVP. Tatum was named the MVC Player of the Year, and coach Chris Lowery was the MVC Coach of the Year. All of these efforts would ultimately earn the Dawgs a four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After the team lost to archrival Creighton in the MVC tournament 67-61, Mieszala wrote a piece titled, “Next stop: The Big Dance.” Mieszala was previewing the NCAA tournament and was able to shine light on the experience that the Salukis had, among other key aspects.
“The Salukis are hoping experience can lead to more success in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.” Coach Chris Lowery said at the time, “‘I think the experience of having seniors will hopefully be more beneficial than it was last year.’”
Mieszala goes into detail about the Salukis being favored with a quote from Tatum, who said, “‘Being the underdogs or being the favorites, you still got to go out and play… you got to go out and compete and forget about everything except what have to do to win the game.’”
Tatum went on to say in the Mieszala piece, “We got to forget about what we’ve done up until this point. It’s a new season right now, we’re 0-0, we got to come out and win some games, just win a lot of games in a row.”
After their selection show at The Copper Dragon, SIU learned it would be facing 13-seeded Holy Cross at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The Dawgs would go on to win this game 61-51, and because of the timing of spring break, there weren’t any Daily Egyptian articles written in the wake of this game.
The win against Holy Cross would earn them the chance to play 5-seeded Virginia Tech, who they would soundly beat 63-48.
There was lots of Daily Egyptian coverage after this game; the front page story of the March 19 issue proclaimed “Sweet Salukis: SIU defeats Va. Tech, advances to Sweet 16 for first time in 5 years.”
McGahan detailed the defensive effort put forth by SIU, writing, “The team known nationally for its stingy defense provided more of the same Sunday on the way to its first Sweet 16 berth since 2002.”
Sophomore guard and current SIU basketball coach Bryan Mullins wanted to make sure the offense got its respect, saying, “‘I think that since everyone knows us for our defense and we play so hard defense that people don’t realize that we can score and we have been getting a lot better this year on offense. You can do so much on defense, but your offense has got to take over too.’”
Accompanying “Sweet Salukis” on the front page was a story by Brandon Wiesenberger. He wrote about the 500-plus Salukis fans who greeted the team at the Williamson County Regional Airport.
Wiesenberger wrote, “As Coach Chris Lowery exited the Delta carrier with his young daughter nestled in his left arm, the scores of fans outside and inside the airport erupted in adulation.”
Wiesenberger was able to capture Tatum in a great mood: “‘It couldn’t get any better,’ said senior guard Jamaal Tatum as he walked through the crowd of people who were snapping photos by the second and reaching out to slap hands with the victors.”
The March 20 issue of The Daily Egyptian was peppered with basketball- related stories, starting with Gonzalez’s coverage of the pep rally titled “Rally ‘round the Dawgs” found on the front page.
“The dreaded shot blocker [Falker] also said he appreciated the devotion Saluki fans showed traveling to Columbus, Ohio for the first rounds and said he was thrilled with the support at the rally.”
“‘It’s enough reason that they’re willing to come all that way and spend all that money to come and support, so that’s a big thing,’ Falker said.”
Gonzalez also quoted SIU president Glenn Poshard, saying, “‘It’s already brought tremendous pride, in the school, in the region, in the state. We’re the only ones still standing in the state of Illinois.”
Mieszala highlighted all of the history the squad made that year and spoke with Young, who said, “‘It feels good that all the stuff we did, as hard as we worked, you know what I’m saying, it all paid off. We’re still going, we’ve still got things we want to do, still got stuff we want to accomplish.’”
“‘It feels good to just to add something else on your legacy, doing so much more stuff and finally accomplishing something and going back to the Sweet 16.’”
Falker’s comments to Mieszala took a long-term view: “‘It’s great to set records, but it’s better when your records are broke, because that means your school is still successful.’”
Young also looked ahead, saying, “‘As far as us [Young and Tatum] being seniors, that’s our role to teach and to help these guys understand the things we understand. So we feel confident in what we’ve taught them and what they know.’”
On the day of the matchup with Kansas, Mieszala took part in a correspondence piece with “Kansan” writer Ryan Schneider, in which each writer explained how their home team could win while also pointing out flaws in the respective teams’ games.
Many fans know what happened later that day, March 22, 2007; a thrilling back-and-forth game, a missed Tatum three pointer that could have potentially tied the game, and a turnover by Falker that led to Kansas free throws. Young took the last shot of the game, but it didn’t fall. SIU lost a heartbreaker 61-58.
Mieszala’s front-page headline read “Almost.” Young was quoted saying, “‘We played a good game against a very good team. You feel upset that you lost a game, but I’m proud of everybody on my team, everybody that stepped onto the court and fought with us.’”
Falker, almost certainly feeling the sting of defeat, was quoted, “‘We don’t take moral victories. If we lose, they beat us. We play every game like we want to win it. If we didn’t think we was on the level of any team in this tournament, then we shouldn’t have come to the court, we should stay home.’”
Young and Tatum, who had played their last game as Salukis, were interviewed by McGahan. Though solemn, both were able to look back at positive things from the program.
McGahan asked the question, “what will you tell your grandchildren about your career?
Young answered, “‘This is a family. We have so many other great times off the court, being with each other, around each other. I think most of my stories are coming from something totally different than what everybody expects.’”
Tatum answered the same question: “‘We’ll tell them about some of the things that happened at practice,’ Tatum said, prompting a grin out of an otherwise solemn Coach Chris Lowery.”
McGahan went on to write, “Lowery did not seem surprised that the men he has spent so much time coaching were acting so nonchalant about the game. ‘The basketball side is so little, a part of what we do with them,’ he said. ‘We’re around them so much. They’re like my other kids.’”
Lowery went on to say, “‘We always try to make them understand that there’s more to life than basketball. Everything – the basketball side, off the court, before practice – the realness of life is always talked about with them. I think that’s probably why they play so hard.’”
McGahan was able to point ahead to the next season with Lowery’s quote, “‘After we told our seniors goodbye… we started immediately with everybody else that’s left, and the next two guys, Matt (Shaw) and Randal (Falker). They’re our next two guys.’”
The Salukis have yet to return to the Sweet 16 since their impressive run in 2007 and are still looking for their first NCAA tournament appearance since the six-year stretch of tournament bids from 2002-2007. Perhaps one day, in the near future, the Dawgs will return back to glory to be dancing come mid-March.
But for now, in light of their MVC tournament semi-finals loss, there’s going to be lots of work to do for everyone involved with the team to land them back in the Sweet Sixteen, or perhaps even a championship one day…
Sports Reporter Ryan Grieser can be reached at [email protected]
To stay up to date on all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.
Leave a Comment