Saluki basketball coaches start prepping for next year

By Gus Bode

Chris Lowery has become accustomed to preparing his teams for postseason play.

However, this season, with the SIU men’s basketball team on the outside looking in at March Madness, Lowery and his coaching staff have already started working toward improving next year’s team.

Lowery said while it is difficult for the team to be missing out on postseason play for the first time since 2001, getting an early start on the recruiting trail could be beneficial.

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‘It’s tough because you want to be playing, whether it is in the NIT or NCAAs. But the one thing about it is that we’re out of the office,’ Lowery said in a phone interview. ‘We’re trying to recruit and get better, and that’s the one advantage you do have.’

After being ousted in the first round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament by Bradley, Lowery immediately was able to focus on recruiting players for the team’s available scholarships and was recently recruiting junior college players in Kansas.

But it was not as if the Salukis could not have made a postseason appearance. Oregon State of the Pac-10 Conference accepted a bid to participate in the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament and will host a game in Corvallis, Ore. The Beavers finished 13-17 overall and 7-11 against conference opponents.

SIU Director of Athletics Mario Moccia said there was a possibility for the Salukis to play in the postseason, but having a short-handed squad and buy-in costs factored into the school’s decision to re-focus on next year.

Moccia estimated entering the CBI would cost the school $60,000 and participating in the inaugural College Insiders Tournament would have cost approximately $20,000.

‘Chris (Lowery) and I really didn’t have a lot of discussions about it,’ Moccia said of the decision making process. ‘Let’s take the break, let’s get in the weight room, let’s hit the weight room and let’s focus on next year.

‘I don’t think it would have hurt the team. But let’s focus on what we need to do to get back where we want to go.’

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Lowery said one of the team’s primary offseason goals is to improve in the weight room.

And while the team could have benefitted from another game together, Lowery said he believes the team would be better next year if it started concentrating on getting stronger.

‘We’ve got to get stronger. I think it was pretty clear how we physically got bullied at times,’ Lowery said. ‘Added strength will make you more competitive, so that’s one of the main concerns for us is getting strong.’

SIU has two available scholarships and Lowery is searching for junior college transfers to compliment a roster that should feature five second-year players, four of whom will be sophomores.

The Salukis have had JUCO transfers contribute to the team’s recent runs of success. Bryan Turner, Lamar Owen and Tyrone Greene each played key roles in SIU’s runs to postseason appearances.

‘Class balance matters a lot,’ Lowery said of bringing in junior college transfer students.

‘We can’t just take a bunch of high school kids again and have sophomores teaching freshmen. You can balance out your class with a junior college player.

‘We’ve got to find balance, but they’ve got to be a good player.’

While the Salukis will be one of three Missouri Valley Conference schools to be watching postseason basketball from home, SIU will still be represented in the postseason through other connections.

Former Saluki coaches Bruce Weber and Matt Painter punched their tickets to the NCAA Tournament, leading Illinois and Purdue, respectively.

Weber told the Chicago Sun-Times he called SIU’s coaching staff for tips on the Fighting Illini’s first-round opponent, Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers beat the Salukis on Nov. 26, 2008, 79-70.

Painter might feel a sense of d’eacute;j’agrave; vu when his Boilermakers hit the court against Missouri Valley Conference champion Northern Iowa in the first round. In his lone season at SIU, Painter led SIU to 17 consecutive wins against MVC opponents before losing to the Panthers in the regular season finale.

Rodney Watson, who has been an assistant under Weber, Painter and Lowery, said postseason rooting interests are each individual’s decision.

‘We root for Illinois and Purdue because we know those guys. And we have different friends that are involved that you’re wishing good things for,’ Watson said. ‘I was in Kroger yesterday during the selection show, so that’s about how much interest I have.’

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