CARBONDALE — Three years of recruiting guys that can pass, dribble and shoot is finally paying off for SIU's men's basketball team.
Heading into Friday night's game against Nevada (10-2) in Las Vegas, the Salukis (7-4) had won three straight games after a home loss to Southeast Missouri State Dec. 9. Players called the defeat an eye-opener at both ends of the floor, but also one they could use to make a run at their first Missouri Valley Conference title since 2007.
"I think it made us realize that we really have to play well defensively in order to win, and everybody's just bought into it," SIU guard/forward Armon Fletcher said.
No one has benefited as much as the 6-foot-5, 207-pound Fletcher from the Salukis' four-guard starting lineup and five-guard attack with center Kavion Pippen out. Playing closer to the rim at the jump has allowed Fletcher, SIU's new hybrid forward, to get going earlier. After making 7 of 11 from the field and 3 of 5 at the free-throw line in the Salukis' win over UNC A&T Tuesday, Fletcher is 19 of 33 from the field (57.6 percent) during the winning streak for 56 points (18.7 per game).
"I talked to the coaches and told them working inside-out will help me get more points in transition, and give me that confidence, just to have the feel for the game," Fletcher said. "Getting a layup early, and then transitioning out onto the wing."
Fletcher made 5 of 12 from 3-point range since moving down, and forced opposing power forwards to chase him on the perimeter. He scored SIU's first points against Lamar on a three-point play, and had two three-point plays in the first four minutes against Jackson State. His only 3-pointer of the game put the Salukis up 28-18 with 6:06 to go in the half.
Defensively, he's been able to stay out of foul trouble, and help the Salukis outrebound their last three opponents by eight. SIU held Jackson State (51), Lamar (61) and UNC A&T (64) under 65 points to move to sixth in the Valley in scoring defense (67 points allowed per game). The Salukis allowed 69.4 points per game last season, and should improve even more when Bol returns.
With few teams in the Valley with a true 5 man — Northern Iowa has preseason all-conference forward Bennett Koch and Bradley has center Koch Bar — the Salukis' versatility could be a challenge for Valley opponents once league play begins.
Pippen, the Salukis' third-leading scorer this season (12.4 points per game) and top rebounder with forward Jonathan Wiley (5.6 per game), is a candidate for the league's newcomer of the year award. Fletcher and Wiley, a 6-7, 201-pound senior who was 10 of his last 16 from the field heading into Friday night's game, give Hinson two athletic wings who can guard bigger players and draw them out onto the perimeter.
With Fletcher and Wiley on the floor with three other guards, SIU can switch on every ball-screen. Offensively, the Salukis have handed out 57 assists in their last three games, and set a Hinson era record with 102 points against UNC A&T.
"Everybody has kind of accepted their role," Hinson said. "Everybody has accepted their rotation, and I think we're settling in to what we have, and Thik will not hurt that. Thik will only help that rotation when we get him back."
It all started over the summer, Wiley said, when SIU's five guards practiced against each other.
"It's something we looked at for a long time," he said. "It is helping us, I think, because when you got five guards out there that can all dribble, switch on everybody, do a little bit of everything, that's pretty hard to guard. Most teams don't have that. They normally have two traditional bigs, or one traditional big, and we've got five guys that can do a little bit of everything. It makes it really, really hard."
SIU takes on Duquesne (8-3 heading into Friday night) tonight at 7:30 p.m., and opens conference play at Northern Iowa (9-2) Dec. 28.