Daily Egyptian

Conference matchup features top players in country

By Evan Jones, @EvanJones_DE

Saluki senior guard Anthony Beane and Evansville’s senior guard D.J. Balentine, the NCAA’s current career leader in points, will meet for the final time in SIU Arena and it could be their most competitive game yet.

Thursday’s game between the SIU men’s basketball team and Evansville matches up the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked teams in the Missouri Valley Conference and some of the best players the conference has to offer.

Beane and Evansville senior center Egidijus Mockevicius were added to the watchlist for the Lou Henson Award earlier this month, which is given to the nation’s best mid-major basketball player.

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Balentine, who is averaging an MVC-best 21.1 point per game, was named to the Lute Olson watchlist, which goes to the nation’s best overall player.

Beane, Balentine and Mockevicius have played in all six regular-season meetings between the Purple Aces and the Salukis the last three seasons. Leading up to Thursday, the Evansville seniors have a 4-2 record over SIU.

“It’s fun playing in Carbondale,” Balentine said. “Now that they are having a good year, it makes the game more interesting.”

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In first three meetings, Beane outscored Balentine 49-9. In the next three games, Balentine outscored Beane 73-40 and his team won those games.

“They have more options to score now, everyone knows [Beane] can score,” Balentine said. “He’s one of the most athletic guards in the country.”

Saluki coach Barry Hinson had some praise for the opposing guard.

“The thing that makes Balentine so good is that he gets assists and plays off the big fella,” Hinson said. “He’s seen it all.”

The “big fella” in question, Mockevicus, leads the MVC and NCAA in rebounds per game (14.5). His 2.7 blocks per game are the most in the Valley and almost double the No. 2 shot blocker, Missouri State freshman forward Obediah Church (1.5).

Not far behind the Evansville duo’s stats are Beane and junior center Bola Olaniyan. Beane is averaging 19.3 points per game, which is second in the MVC, while Olaniyan is averaging 8.5 rebounds per game, also second in the MVC.

Olaniyan’s 8.5 rebounds per game is three more than his career average. 

“Size is not everything,” Mockevicus said. “Smaller guys are usually faster than me. [Bola] is a hell of a player, he’s improved a lot since his freshman year.”

At 6-foot-10, Mockevicus is three inches taller than Olaniyan, but Nigerian-born Saluki is used to going up against taller centers. 

“I just like to go get the ball,” Olaniyan said. “I’m quicker, I just have to trust my quickness. It’s a timing thing, you have to know where the ball is going — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” 

Olaniyan has played Evansville two times in his career and some of his stats are higher than his career averages when facing Mockevicius, which isn’t a necessarily a good thing. While he grabs more rebounds (nine) and shoots better from the floor (67 percent), his turnovers (2.5) and personal fouls per game (four) also rise. He should see plenty of floor time against Mockevicus, as his minutes per game increases against UE, too (25).

Balentine is leading the MVC in minutes played per game this season with 36. Beane is currently No. 4 with an average of 33.9 minutes per game, so fans should see plenty of the All-MVC guards.

Beane has scored less than 10 points in SIU’s last two games, but the Normal native averages 14.9 points against the Purple Aces. If he can’t get hot against Evansville (17-4, 6-2), SIU (18-3, 7-1) could be looking at its second conference loss.

Evan Jones can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @EvanJones_DE

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