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We all need a vacation.

March is around the corner, but there was still frost on my window Monday morning. There are puddles all over Southern Illinois, and lakes and rivers are overrunning their banks. Hump Day, if you believe in such a thing, is still a day away.

SIU's men's basketball team couldn't get a six-day break from competition at a better time. The Salukis entered last week two games out of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference with two to play. They'd won three straight games, two of them in overtime, and eight of their last nine games, overall.

Then came a Senior Night loss to MVC champion Loyola, the first time SIU coach Barry Hinson has lost the final home game of the regular season in 17 tries. Then a 31-point blowout at Evansville that might as well have been 61 closed the regular season.

The Salukis aren't as physically tired as they are mentally exhausted. They threw the ball where there wasn't anybody there. They didn't throw it to their 6-foot-10 center when he was open, and were too eager to try to deliver it when he wasn't. They trailed by 10 less than 12 minutes into the game, and got embarrassed by a good, but not great, Purple Aces team that competed like it was the MVC Tournament.

Now, we'll see which SIU team shows up in St. Louis this weekend --the one that toughed out eight of 10 games that were decided by five points or less, or the one that was completely out of sync Saturday in Evansville.

"We're definitely still confident in ourselves. We know what we can do," SIU point guard Marcus Bartley said after Saturday's loss. "We still know we haven't played our best basketball this season, at all, so, we've got a lot of room for improvement. We've got some days to prep, and can make a lot of noise in St. Louis."

The Salukis can do just that if they defend better and find a way to make Pippen a factor. SIU has two inherent weaknesses it can't correct, a short bench and iffy shooting from the 3-point line. The Salukis are best when their guards, well, guard, and score by going to the basket. They can make free throws, or finish at the rim.

With their innate ability to make steals, at times simply taking the ball away from opposing players, they must put a bigger focus on defense rather than how to get a great shot at the offensive end.

Scoring will go down a bit at the Scottrade Center this week. It always does at a neutral site, at least the first day or two. History is on SIU's side as the second seed — the No. 2 seed has won its first game at Arch Madness 19 years in a row — but it won't do a thing to help the Salukis beat either Valparaiso or Missouri State Friday at 6 p.m.

Only a short vacation, a renewed emphasis at the defensive end, and a little confidence will lead to that.

TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman.


Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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