For the first time in years, I’m looking forward to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Not that I think the Salukis are going to win the tournament … I’m an optimist, not delusional. Let’s be honest, playing a Friday game would be a quantum leap forward for this program.
But, for the first time in years, I’m approaching the tournament as if Friday is a possibility.
For the first time in recent memory, the Salukis are playing February games like they care. In the past few years, the Dawgs, with a couple notable exceptions, started phoning in games about mid-January.
This team plays every game as if it has something to prove. The Salukis might be under .500, but there is something of an edge to this team. There is something of a chip on their collective shoulder.
I like that.
Despite the record, this team plays with pride. As a group, the team understands its physical limitations. Team members face their shortcomings in virtually every post-game press conference.
By the same token, the team knows it has to play the hand it’s been dealt. There is no trace of self pity with this group, just the notion that the only way to overcome is by playing hard, playing with emotion.
And, that’s what makes this team potentially dangerous. Dangerous here means, having a chance to advance to Friday.
This team has one other feature past teams have lacked – an on-court leader.
This is Jeff Early’s team.
When it comes to effort, Early sets the standard. No one on this team plays any harder than Early. The 6-foot-1 senior wears his emotions on his sleeve. The rest of the team feeds off his effort, his emotion.
The Salukis haven’t seen this kind of leadership since Bryan Mullins.
If the Salukis win Thursday night, Creighton or Wichita State looms on the horizon. Creighton is just a bad match-up, but the Salukis have dogged the Shockers in both meetings this year. The win over Wichita State is SIU’s signature win this year.
If the tournament were held today, the Salukis would face Bradley or Illinois State. The Redbirds and Braves are tied for seventh in the conference.
Granted, Illinois State hasn’t been a good match-up for the Salukis this season.
However, if there is one thing this SIU team has proven this year, it doesn’t back down from a challenge. Bradley is probably the more likely opponent. The Braves have beaten the Salukis twice, but SIU has been more competitive against Bradley.
No matter the opponent, it will still be a challenge for the Salukis. This year, you get the feeling the team might rise to the occasion.
LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at email@example.com, or call 618-351-5088.