The need to channel ‘Jack’

By Gus Bode

The stretch run for the SIU men’s basketball team to improve its Missouri Valley Conference tournament position begins Wednesday against Illinois State. The Salukis sit in seventh place, but they are only two games out of second, so it is possible for them to make a push for Arch Madness’ No. 2 seed.

That’s a tough enough task with Bryan Mullins in the lineup. Unfortunately, he’s out indefinitely.

Yeah, uh, not a good start. Anything else would have gone over better than that. Well, except for maybe about 30 seconds of a pornographic movie being shown after Larry Fitzgerald’s fourth-quarter touchdown in the Super Bowl. (In case you haven’t heard, that’s what about 80,000 people watching in Arizona saw.)

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But I’m not here to harp on the negative. Sure, I could play the ‘we’re cooked’ card, whip this column up as quickly as possible and take an undeserved nap. Problem is, I do not believe the season is lost. There is a lot going against this team right now, but it all can be overcome. Kevin Dillard was recruited as a point guard and Mullins’ eventual heir, after all. That torch might just have to be passed sooner than expected.

The emergence of Justin Bocot as a scorer off the bench these last three games was something the Salukis needed before Mullins’ injury, so a drop-off from his recent performance would be as damaging to SIU’s NCAA Tournament hopes as … well, an injury to Mullins.

Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? It was not so long ago that the Salukis appeared in that six years in a row, so anything short is looked at as a disappointment of sorts. SIU trying to improve its MVC tournament seed is SIU improving its chances at winning the conference tournament and heading to the Big Dance.

The key here is to keep that goal in mind, but manage expectations between now and then. I mentioned the possibility of the Salukis finishing second in the MVC in the regular season, but that might be a little unrealistic. I only put that there to draw you in. So if you’re still here: It worked.

Anyway, I read something in ESPN.com’s Truehoop last week, in which author Henry Abbott mentioned a question-and-answer session author Ben Sherwood did with the Web site Freakonomics, and that what he said can be applied to any sort of adversity.

Sherwood talked about the ‘Stockdale Paradox,’ and the short version is that optimism only works when coupled with realism.

My point is the Salukis ‘- especially the important quartet of Dillard, Bocot, Anthony Booker and Ryan Hare ‘- will more than likely take their fair share of lumps while they adjust to their increased roles. But for SIU to have a chance at going to March Madness, Booker and Bocot needed to play better than they had in the first 15 games or so.

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It makes sense for Bocot to take Mullins’ spot in the starting lineup because of all the three-guard lineups in the MVC, but it would be beneficial for Booker to play a lot of his time on the floor with Dillard. Booker should be able to get a few open looks on some mid-range jump shots when his defenders leave him to help for Dillard’s drives to the baskets, but I guess today we’ll start to see if that is the case.

The identity the Salukis have in the conference tournament could be different than what we see tonight, but a win against Illinois State would go a long way towards getting SIU into sixth place or better and avoiding an extra game in the MVC tournament.

Again, the loss of Mullins is huge, and that has to be appreciated. His defense and distributing skills are unmatched in this conference. But these freshmen were recruited to carry the program after this season. They’re just going to have to start tonight.

And if they’re not ready now, hopefully they will be in a month. They might have to age about as quickly as Robin Williams’ character in the movie ‘Jack,’ at this point.

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