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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Arch Madness: Salukis look to beat the odds in St. Louis

Arch+Madness%3A+Salukis+look+to+beat+the+odds+in+St.+Louis
Yarauseth Zavala

SIU men’s basketball came into this season with a lot more questions than answers. After losing their two leading scorers in the transfer portal, it isn’t difficult to see why the Salukis were picked ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll.

Somehow, Southern simultaneously overperformed that projection, and fell short of where it could have ended in the regular season standings, with a sixth-place finish.

Led by a super senior backcourt duo of Xavier Johnson – the Valley leader in both scoring and assists – and Trent Brown – the school’s new all-time leader in career games played – the Salukis managed a 19-12 record, 11-9 in conference play, marking the second-best season in five years under head coach Bryan Mullins.

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Despite overachieving expectations, the Salukis were in an even better position just a week ago, when they had the opportunity to play for the third seed in the Valley. On Sunday afternoon, the fourth seed was on the line in SIU’s regular season finale against Northern Iowa.

However, back-to-back losses to Bradley and UNI in the final week of the season dropped the Salukis all the way down to sixth in the standings.

Southern will play 11 seed UIC (11-20, 4-16) in the opening round of Arch Madness on Thursday night at 8:30 p.m at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. With a win, they would advance to play 3 seed Bradley (21-10, 13-7) at 8:30 p.m. on Friday night.

The Salukis have not cut down the nets in St. Louis since 2006, and have not advanced to the championship game since 2007. If SIU wants to end that drought, it will need to go through the gauntlet.

Although the Flames of UIC have a poor conference record, both of their matchups against Southern have been tight. Their first meeting in December saw SIU hold a slim halftime lead before pulling away, and the Salukis only escaped with a three-point win during their February rematch in Chicago.

The key to success in both of those games, as it was throughout most of the season, was Johnson. He scored 31 and 29 points in each game respectively while playing near the maximum amount of minutes in both.

That high usage rate seems to have slowed down the MVC Player of the Year candidate lately, only crossing the 20-point mark twice since the Feb. 7 overtime loss to Drake. He has also registered 39 or more minutes in all but one game since Jan. 27.

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Fatigue is typically a factor when it gets late in the season, especially in a conference as grueling and physical as the Missouri Valley. With just a strict eight-man rotation, the Salukis will be relying on their typical cast to push through the grind if they are going to win four games in four days.

If Southern beats the Flames, it will set up a date the next night with the Bradley Braves, who received a bye into the quarterfinals as a top-four seed. The Salukis most recently were crushed by Bradley on Wednesday in their penultimate regular season game, which does not bode well for a potential rematch.

It isn’t all bad news for SIU though. As with all of their top-five conference opponents, the Salukis balanced out a poor showing with a solid outing elsewhere in the schedule. For Bradley, it was a Jan. 17 matchup in Carbondale that saw SIU hold a 21-point halftime lead, but ultimately allowing a Braves comeback win.

The Salukis will need to not only get out in front of the Braves like they did in January, but also take care of that lead. Blown double-digit leads are a common theme not only for Southern Illinois, but in the Missouri Valley in general.

Southern has suffered two comeback losses of that nature (Bradley and Missouri State), two close calls that it ultimately held on to win (Murray State and Illinois State), and three games where SIU was the team mounting a comeback (Murray State, Drake and Indiana State).

Many of those results have stemmed from the fatigue issue. Three players – Johnson, Brown and Troy D’Amico – have averaged more than 30 minutes per game in the conference schedule, and Southern has rarely had games where it has put two complete halves together without faltering for stretches.

Arch Madness will be a gauntlet. In the 10- or 12-team era of the tournament, only one team that started its tournament on Thursday even reached the final: Valparaiso in 2020. But since the Valley expanded to 12 teams in 2023, eight of the 12 Valley members will start on Thursday, including SIU, making it more likely that a play-in team breaks through.

The Salukis have shown that they can hang with any team, but it has struggled to do so consistently. Entering the tournament on a two-game losing streak against two of the top-five teams in the Valley, Southern does not seem to be in a favorable position.

But as head coach Bryan Mullins said following the regular season finale, nothing from the last two months matters. All that matters is what happens this weekend in St. Louis. With a ticket to the NCAA Tournament on the line, can Southern Illinois beat the odds?

Student managing editor Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached on X @brandynwilcoxen or on his email at [email protected]

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