Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Illinois State had a major hand in making today’s SIU basketball doubleheader with Bradley crucial.

The Saluki women meet Bradley at 11:30 a.m. and the men tip off at 3 p.m.

All games are critical in an 18-game conference season, but Illinois State magnified the importance of Sunday’s games by defeating the men 76-68 in overtime Thursday night, then knocking off the Saluki women 39-36 Friday night.

Illinois State ended the men’s five-game winning streak. The five-game streak had propelled SIU to second place in the MVC standings. With the loss, the Salukis dropped into a tie with the Redbirds for third place, two games behind Loyola.

On the surface, that Salukis appear to be sitting pretty as far as the MVC tournament. However, as noted before things can happen quickly in an 18-game season. While the Salukis are just two games out of first place, they are also just two games out from a Thursday night play-in game at the Valley tournament.

The conference tournament is a grind, mentally more than physically.

A two-game a week schedule may not seem onerous, but it takes a mental toll. Each game is the most important game of the season up to that point.

The first game? It’s vital to get off to a good start in an 18-game season. The second? You can’t afford to start the season with two losses. A loss in the second game negates any advantage gained by winning the first. And, this mental grind continues for three months.

Thursday’s game at Illinois State was huge for the Salukis. A win would have given SIU sole possession of second place. It would have put the Salukis three games out of the play-in game with just five games to play. The implications were huge.

Conversely, a win wouldn’t have negated the importance of today’s game with Bradley, a team just a game behind SIU in the standings, but would have given the Salukis a sliver of a margin of error. Now, it is extremely critical for the Salukis to hold the home court advantage and put a two-game cushion between the Salukis and Braves.

In the meantime, Illinois State’s win over the women dropped the Salukis into fourth place in the Valley standings. It also gave the Redbirds a sweep over SIU this season.

The Salukis were coming off a tough road trip – the annual swing through Drake and UNI. That road trip is where dreams are made, or aspirations of a conference championship are dashed. The Salukis squandered a big lead at Drake then fell by eight points at UNI.

Friday’s loss to Illinois State was SIU’s third in a row. Bradley is 5-7 in MVC play, SIU is 7-5. It is simply a game the Salukis need to win to remain among the top four seeds. The Salukis have six games remaining – three at home, three on the road.

The three home games are against teams in the lower part of the standings. Those are the games a team has to win.

LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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