SIU's men's basketball team won its fourth straight game Tuesday night with a road win at Drake.
it was only the Bulldogs' second loss this season at the Knapp Center, after falling to Loyola a few days ago. The Salukis got four players into double figures, outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-25, and earned nine steals. SIU captured its first four-game winning streak since January 2016 and moved into second place in the Missouri Valley Conference standings with seven to go.
With a limited roster, and so many things that could go wrong, SIU appears to be playing some of its best basketball of the season. Once offensively challenged, the Salukis have shot 50 percent or better in the second half of six straight games and in five of their last six halves, period. From the 3-point line, they're 31 of 67 during the streak, and have outrebounded three of their four opponents.
But are they peaking too early? SIU coach Barry Hinson said no at Friday's press conference, as the Salukis (15-9, 7-4 MVC) prepared to host Valparaiso (12-12, 3-8) Saturday night at 7.
"My experience has always been that the people that play well down the stretch play well in the last two weeks of January and the month of February," Hinson said. "That's the key. If you look at a week before the halfway mark, I told you guys to relax, not foreseeing what we'd do, but I specifically said that. I've been in this a long time. Been in this league when they wanted to send the trophy at the halfway mark to somebody."
Whoever wins the Valley this season will have more than two losses for the first time since Creighton held off Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Evansville and Indiana State five years ago. The Bluejays finished 13-5 in the MVC, a game ahead of the Shockers, two ahead of the Panthers and three ahead of Evansville, and 28-8 overall.
Creighton won four of its last six games in January 2013, including its last two, but endured a three-game losing streak (the longest of the season) after beating Bradley at home in the first game in February. The Bluejays, who featured MVC player of the year Doug McDermott, lost at Indiana State, at home to Illinois State and on the road at Northern Iowa.
Creighton won four of its last five games to win the closest regular-season race in 13 years, when the top-five places were all decided by one game. The Bluejays had to win at Bradley and at home against Wichita State in the regular-season finale to hold the Shockers off. They then won the MVC Tournament and beat Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Duke.
"It's a long season, there's a lot of games to go, there's a lot of things that can happen on both sides," Hinson said. "We feel like we've had some upsets. I don't feel like we've gone into any games where you would say people upset us. I think we're the underdog."
Well, of course you think you're the underdog, with seven players in the rotation, three of them being new players. But, the winning streak has proven the Salukis have enough talent to compete for the league championship.
They will be favored against Valparaiso (Saturday's line had SIU favored by six points), but the Crusaders present some of the same challenges they did back in early January. They have two 7-footers that have struggled this season, but finished well the first time against the Salukis. Valparaiso's three main guards, Tevonn Walker (15.3 points per game), Bakari Evelyn (12.1 ppg.) and Markus Golder (8 ppg.) are quick, can shoot the 3 and are tough to keep off the free-throw line.
Valparaiso shot 32 free throws in its 69-63 win over Indiana State Wednesday night in Valparaiso, Indiana. The Crusaders sank 22 of them and had 13 steals to end their five-game losing streak.
"The one thing you can't do, and we haven't done it yet, is feel sorry for yourself," Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said on Monday's MVC coaches teleconference. "Our team's lost a little bit of their confidence, but their default is to continue to compete and continue to fight. We've gotta continue with that default going forward. We gotta see the ball go in the basket a little bit, and we've gotta execute better at the defensive end."
In Valley play, opponents are shooting 45.5 percent from the field against Valparaiso. Despite their size (the Crusaders play four guards a lot or three with 6-foot-8 forward Mileek McMillan) they are getting outrebounded by an average of 6.4 boards a game.
Scouting the Valparaiso Crusaders (12-12, 3-8 MVC)
Hometown: Valparaiso, Indiana
Coach: Matt Lottich (36-21 at VU, 36-21 overall)
Leading scorers: G Tevonn Walker 15.3 ppg., G Bakari Evelyn 12.1 ppg., G Markus Golder 8 ppg.
Leading rebounders: G Tevonn Walker 5 rpg., G Max Joseph 4.5 rpg.
Notes: Valparaiso beat SIU 83-72 Jan. 6 in one of the Salukis' worst efforts of the season. Sophomore guard Aaron Cook was suffering from flu-like symptoms that day and backup forward Rudy Stradnieks didn't play because of flu-like symptoms. Crusader 7-footers Derrik Smits and Jaume Sorolla combined for 28 points and 10 rebounds. They average under 13 points and eight rebounds a game. ... SIU is shooting 53.9 percent from the field during the winning streak. ... Hinson is one win away from career victory No. 300. Hinson is 94-92 in his sixth season at SIU, 169-117 in nine seasons at Missouri State and 36-23 in two years with Oral Roberts. He has led his teams to four NIT appearances and no NCAA Tournaments. Hinson has the distinction (or curse, depending on how you look at it) as having coached two of the highest RPIs to not get an at-large bid, in 2000 with the Bears (34) and in 2006 (21) with Missouri State. The 21 the Bears earned 12 years ago is still the highest RPI to ever not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Notably, three other Valley teams got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, Northern Iowa, which had an RPI of 25, Wichita State (27) and Bradley (33). SIU won the 2006 MVC Tournament for the league's automatic bid into the Big Dance, part of the Salukis' seven-straight appearances between 2002-07.