As Darren Brooks and Stetson Hairston’s careers and an era in SIU basketball draw to a close, Jamaal Tatum is just beginning his

By Gus Bode

Jamaal Tatum isn’t waiting.

Never mind the changing of the guard, the passing of the torch or the ever-infamous sophomore slump.

Tatum has been outstanding. So good in fact that to say he’s having a breakout season could be considered an understatement.

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He’s averaging 14.2 points and 3.6 assists in the Salukis’ current five-game tear. Both numbers are higher than his season averages of 11.7 points and 2.14 assists.

It’s not that he’s overshadowed his teammates – Matt Shaw, Stetson Hairston and Tony Young have each scored over their season average in the last five games.

It’s just that Tatum’s recent performances – he’s led the Salukis in scoring in three straight games and is shooting 54 percent from the field in that span – have garnered additional attention, even from his head coach.

“His play, especially the last three of four games, has really been special,” head coach Chris Lowery said. “He’s taking better shots. His shot selection is better. He’s starting to understand what I want from him, and he’s doing a good job of just playing our style of play along with getting better.”

It doesn’t get any better than Saturday’s 22-point outburst at Kent State. Or last Saturday’s 18-point effort against Creighton. Both games were televised nationally by ESPN2, and both games Tatum played at an eye-opening level.

Tatum earned a spot on Sportscenter’s Top Ten with an ankle-breaking crossover and three-pointer to beat the first-half buzzer at Kent State, one of his four treys in the game.

But national media attention and scoring explosions don’t mean anything to Tatum. He just wants to win.

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“That really doesn’t concern me,” he said. “It’s just about going out there and playing the game.”

Brooks is the target of most defenses and consequently is spied on by other defenders. He has done an excellent job of finding his teammates this season; there’s no denying that.

But when he has struggled offensively, Tatum has been there as the Salukis’ second-leading scorer.

He has torched opponents with his jump shot, some off the dribble, some from beyond the arc and others off the catch. His bread and butter, though, is his speed and ability to knock down pull-up jumpers.

“He’s stepped up and made himself a player, and he’s somebody who the other team will have to guard now,” said Lowery, who compared Tatum’s quickness to that of Illinois guard Dee Brown, dubbed by many the fastest player in college basketball.

“You can’t just focus totally on stopping Darren.”

Still, Tatum is continuing to learn how to run a team, when to take shots and when to look for his teammates. His development in this part of the game will come with time and experience.

“I think I’ve done well so far,” Tatum said. “I think I could do better, but in time I’ll get better, and with experience I’ll get even better.”

SIU (22-6, 12-3 Missouri Valley) has three regular-season games remaining before the MVC Tournament and, by most accounts, will make its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance thereafter.

How far the Salukis advance is anybody’s guess. But when the season ends, so to will the college basketball careers of Brooks, Hairston, Josh Warren and LaMar Owen.

And just as soon as the seniors remove the Saluki maroon and white from their bodies for the last time, questions concerning the future of the program are sure to begin.

If the first 28 games are any indication, one has to look no further than Tatum for the answer.

Tatum, who has taken more of a leadership role this season, said he’s ready for the increased responsibility that will be asked of him next year and welcomes the challenge with open arms – his and those of Young.

“Me and Tony have both stepped up a lot this year, and we have to be ready to step up even more next year,” Tatum said.

Owen and Warren each have had a hand in leading the basketball program to where it stands today – a 34-game home winning streak against the Valley, the third longest home winning streak in the nation and the eighth-most wins in college basketball since the 2001-02 season.

But Tatum and Young will be expected to take over from where Brooks and Hairston left off.

“I think we will fill in those roles,” Tatum said. “But, just like Sylvester Willis, Brad Korn and Bryan Turner last year, no one is ever going to be ale to take their spot.

“No one is ever going to be able to take Stetson and Darren’s spot. But me and Tony are going to try our best to do it.”

So are Tatum and Young ready to take over? Yes, says one half of the Salukis’ longtime one-two punch.

“Just from a guard standpoint of them working with us every day over the last couple years and seeing what it takes to win, and our desire to win and how hard we play,” Brooks said.

“I think it rubbed off on them, and now they’re ready to take over when we leave.”

As many would attest, Tatum is well ahead of schedule.

Reporter Drew Stevens can be reached at [email protected]

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