Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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Column: It’s not that deep

A seven-man rotation worked against Murray State. Will it be enough in St. Louis?
RJ+McGee+%2823%29%2C+Jovan+Stulic+%2833%29+and+Trey+Miller+%2825%29+huddle+together+during+a+timeout+Dec.+2%2C+2023+at+Banterra+Center+in+Carbondale%2C+Illinois.
Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto
RJ McGee (23), Jovan Stulic (33) and Trey Miller (25) huddle together during a timeout Dec. 2, 2023 at Banterra Center in Carbondale, Illinois.

Wednesday night against Murray State was Southern’s biggest test of its depth. Not only was the ever-reliable Clarence Rupert out with an illness, but the nation’s second-leading scorer Xavier Johnson had perhaps the worst shooting night of his Saluki career. On top of that, both Johnson and Jarrett Hensley racked up four fouls with several crucial minutes to go in the game.

And yet, despite everything, head coach Bryan Mullins continued with a business-as-usual seven-man rotation.

As the season has progressed, Mullins has tended to lean on his starters, which isn’t uncommon for a college basketball team of course. When it comes down to it, you want your best players on the court.

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However, sometimes that can prove to be the team’s downfall. Such as a few weeks ago against Missouri State, when the Salukis did not substitute for the final 10 minutes of regulation or the five minutes of overtime, during which the Bears came back from down double-digits while SIU couldn’t make a shot in the final five minutes of the second half.

The bench has earned its flowers over the past few weeks, as seen in any press conference from Mullins. But that appreciation, at least in the context of game action, only really applies to a select few players. Everyone not named Davis, Ebube or Hensley might as well have their warmups sewn on.

Not every team needs an excessively deep bench. If the personnel isn’t there, it isn’t there. Which is not to say that the rest of the team can’t step up when their number is called; perhaps Mullins just lost his rolodex.

Whether it’s Trey Miller struggling to find a spot on a backcourt among two fifth-year seniors, R.J. McGee playing only three games in the calendar year, or Jovan Stulic vanishing from the box scores since Christmas, it’s been a disappointing year for the 2023 crop of transfers aside from Hensley.

Compare this to the 2022 portal, which gave Southern the gifts of Xavier Johnson and Clarence Rupert, as well as one-and-done Jawaun Newton.

Could we be talking about the Miller-Stulic connection this time next season? Possibly, but Johnson and Rupert secured starting spots early in their Saluki tenures and were key contributors come tournament time. That couldn’t be farther from the case for the newest Salukis.

Perhaps a better comparison would be AJ Ferguson, who played just 59 minutes in 11 games after transferring to SIU in 2022. Over the summer of 2023, Ferguson emerged as a potential starter, and has done so in nearly every game he’s been healthy for this season.

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Even then, part of the reason why Ferguson saw such little playing time last season was the depth of that squad. The 2022-23 Salukis had nine players register an average of 10 or more minutes per team game, while this year’s team has just seven.

This year was supposed to be a transition season for the Dawgs. After losing their two stars Marcus Domask and Lance Jones to Big Ten powerhouses Illinois and Purdue respectively, expectations were not very high for a roster that gave a lot of “what now?” vibes.

Fast forward to February, and the Salukis are in sole possession of the fourth seed. Winning out would guarantee SIU gets a bye to Friday in Arch Madness, just one win away from a potential semifinal rematch with Indiana State, which it beat last Saturday. It wouldn’t take much to convince even a pessimistic Saluki fan that cutting down the nets in St. Louis might be more possible than ever before under Bryan Mullins.

But in a tough, gritty Missouri Valley Conference, the minutes accumulated throughout the season will take their toll in the late stages of February into March. And when your guards are averaging more than 40 minutes a game over lengthy stretches, it’s only a matter of time before that depth will be tested yet again.

As important as Clarence Rupert is to this team, the Salukis were somewhat fortunate that it was his services that needed replacing. Ebube and Hensley did a solid job in elevated roles, with Troy D’Amico filling in the gaps.

But if it were, say, one of the two super-senior starting guards missing Wednesday’s game, would we see the same type of resolve? Could the Salukis put that trust in Miller, Stulic or McGee, to name a few?

The more important question is: would Bryan Mullins put that same trust in them?

If the answer is yes, then it’s a wonder why they haven’t seen the court hardly at all in the leadup to Arch Madness.

If the answer is no, then the clock might already be ticking on a Saluki Cinderella story.

Managing editor 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.

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  • W

    Walter MillerFeb 23, 2024 at 12:31 pm

    Very nice article. Our team is playing excellent basketball. I definitely expect that to continue.
    We have a great rotation going.
    Our next three, Trey, RJ, and Jovan are definitely ready if called upon!
    This is definitely going to be fun!
    “GO DAWGS”

    Reply