SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — SIU men's basketball coach Barry Hinson could only shuffle one player at a time Saturday at Missouri State.
It was Kavion Pippen for Rudy Stradnieks, at least for eight minutes. It was Tyler Smithpeters for Aaron Cook. Cook for Marcus Bartley. And so forth. By the end of the Salukis' 79-77 win at JQH Arena, Sean Lloyd and Armon Fletcher had played 35 minutes, Bartley had gone 34, Pippen had logged 30, and Cook and Smithpeters 29 apiece.
"It's a challenge," Hinson said. "Thirty-five, thirty-five, thirty-four. We try to do it around timeouts. You see that we do a lot of subbing before media timeouts. I called two timeouts (Saturday), rest timeouts. Out of my five timeouts, two of them were called to rest."
Rotating six players for 40 minutes, in cycles of five, is SIU's new reality. And playing his guys for that long was only half the battle for Hinson and his staff when forward Jonathan Wiley and backup guard Eric McGill joined forward Thik Bol on injured reserve in late December.
"We're used to it now," Fletcher said. "Before, a lot of guys were getting emotional and getting their feelings about coming out of the game, but we had a team meeting. We talked about all of that. A players-only meeting, and we talked to the coaches, and stuff, and ever since then we've been undefeated. None of the guys have had bent feelings, and we've all been playing together."
The Salukis (14-9, 6-4 Missouri Valley Conference) moved into a tie for second place in the league with Drake (12-11, 6-4) after toppling the Bears (15-8, 5-5). Bradley (16-7, 6-4) joined SIU and Drake in second after defeating Indiana State in Terre Haute, Indiana, Sunday.
With eight games left in the regular season, Hinson and his staff have tried to get creative in their pursuit of rest. Thirty seconds here for a timeout. Maybe a minute with a full timeout. Two or three minutes here or there at the end of a half.
Lloyd, who is averaging a team-best 34 minutes a game this season, could become the first Saluki since Anthony Beane Jr. to play that much over an entire year. Beane averaged 34.8 minutes a game in 2014-15. Forward Ashraf Amaya set SIU's single-season record for average minutes in a season in 1992 at 37.2 per game.
Fortunately, SIU's only real bench player, Smithpeters, is playing the best basketball of his career. The fifth-year senior from Harrisburg canned 5 of 7 from the field Saturday, 4 of 5 from the 3-point line, for 14 points. He is 7 of 13 behind the arc during the Salukis' three-game winning streak, is fourth in steals (25) and the team's fourth-best active rebounder at four per game.
"I got in a good position to get a good shot off, and everybody on our team found me, so I just shot it with confidence," Smithpeters said.
Fortunately for SIU, for the first time in years, it will clear off its longest road trips of the season before February. After Tuesday's game at Drake, the Salukis' only remaining road games are at Illinois State (four hours away) Feb. 8, at Indiana State (three hours) Feb. 17, and at Evansville (two hours) on Feb. 24 in the regular-season finale.
The Salukis will play four of their final seven games at SIU Arena, including three of their next four after the Drake game. SIU is 10-2 at home.
"In all honesty, when we rest 'em will be (Sunday)," Hinson said. "That's how we're doing it. We're not going very long, very hard. We're trying to rest those guys as much as possible. Ice water baths, stretching, hydrotherapy, anything that we can do."