Rooting for the home team: Saluki fans have high expectations for Arch Madness

By Tamar Mosby, Sports Editor

The Southern Illinois men’s basketball team (15-12, 9-5 MVC)has been on the tear this month during conference play, holding a seven-game win streak that featured the defeat of several Valley contenders.

This streak was the longest active winning streak in the the Missouri Valley Conference, 11th longest active winning streak in the nation, and the longest winning streak the SIU team had seen since its 2006-07 season.

Their play has excited fans and caused the Banterra Center seats to be filled almost every game day. During the team’s Feb. 8 matchup against Missouri State, there were 6,528 fans in attendance, the most Southern has seen at a single game in years.

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The team’s performance has brought excitement to Saluki athletics and with this, a certain degree of shock as well. Many were surprised to see the the young team, led by a first-year head coach, succeed to this extent and take down more experienced, veteran-heavy teams.

Southern was selected last in this year’s preseason poll, but is currently tied with Bradley University for the third place ranking in the conference standings.

One could assume that the low votes were due to the program being under construction. With the resignation of former head coach Barry Hinson and the graduation of six seniors, who made up a majority of the team’s key players, newly appointed head coach Mullins had to start almost completely from scratch with this season’s team.

Along with starting over with a virtually new roster, the team has also faced several unforeseen injuries with those of senior guard Aaron Cook and freshman forward Sekou Dembele. Both Cook and Dembele will remain sidelined until next season.

The team got off to a rather shaky start, losing their very first conference matchup to Indiana State and leaving much to be desired of their performance. 

Despite their rough beginning, graduate student center Barret Benson said that this recent success has come as no surprise at all to he and his teammates, who were expecting to do well upon entering the season.

“We had planned on winning this league since the first day in June, that was always someone else’s expectation of us,” Benson said of the poll in a Jan. 29 interview. “We’re just going to keep working at that and try to bring home a championship.”

While the team’s youth has caused the potential success of the program this season to be doubted, many fans see this particular aspect as an attribute that makes the team special.

“I think that this team is special because it’s a young team and you can tell that there is a lot of talent,” SIU alumnus Matt Gross said. “As they keep spending more time with Coach Mullins, I think that the team can go far.”

SIU band member Cameron Reed sees the team’s hard work as their best quality and said he feels this will help the Salukis succeed in the long run.

“I think their hard work and their grit is what’s special about this team,” Reed said. “Some people are counting them out and just their hard work and determination is what has gotten them through this season.”

SIU is a very hardworking team and this is evident in their defensive efforts as they rank first in the conference and 10th nationally in scoring defensive, only allowing each opponent 61.1 points per game. 

The Salukis also currently rank third in the Missouri Valley Conference in the steals category and second in adjusted defensive efficiency after Loyola University Chicago.

While Southern’s young team has found success recently, they have continued to struggle on the road holding a 3-8 travel record. This past week on the road, the Salukis win streak was stifled by the Valparaiso University Crusaders in a 55-38 loss on Feb. 12. 

After the loss, SIU returned home and took on the Bradley University Braves on Feb. 15. The Braves led Southern for the entirety of the first half, until a run gave the Salukis their first lead of the game. 

Southern Illinois was unable to keep the lead and dropped its second straight conference matchup of the week. Prior to playing Bradley, the Salukis were ranked second in the conference. After the loss, they now sit in the third place position.

“This season, I feel that they’ve gone over their expectations and as they’ve been doing better, the expectations continue to rise,” Reed said. “So far, in the past few games, they haven’t been meeting those expectations, but for them to be able to come back from such a large deficit [against Bradley] was impressive.”

Despite the team’s lackluster performance in the past two games, Southern fans still have faith that their home team can win the MVC championship.

“I think since the beginning of the season, they’ve been playing better together,” Abriana Jones, a senior studying psychology, said. “With new guys on the team, there is more versatility and that’s why I think that they can win the conference tournament and possibly do well in the NCAA tournament.”

If the Salukis use their upcoming games to improve their second half execution and road play, their chances of bringing a trophy back to Carbondale increase immensely.

In two weeks’ time, fans will have the opportunity to see if these adjustments have been made and if the young team will live up to the expectations set for it on the big stage. 

Sports editor Tāmar Mosby can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mosbytamar.

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