CARBONDALE — Center Kavion Pippen has been a big part of SIU's 57 assists during its three-game winning streak.
The Saluki men's basketball team (7-4) might match up best with Nevada (10-2) without him when the two battle at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas tonight in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic. Wolf Pack starters Caleb Martin (28.5 points per game), Cody Martin (14.3), Kendall Stephens (10.6) and Jordan Caroline (18.3), a former Saluki, are all 6-foot-7 and make up more than 73 percent of Nevada's offense this season.
SIU has risen to 42nd in the nation in field goal percentage defense (39.3 percent) because of a five-guard lineup that has been able to switch on every ball-screen, and led to three straight double-digit victories.
"I think the biggest thing is we're versatile," SIU senior guard Tyler Smithpeters said. "Armon (Fletcher) can guard a guard or play the 4 man, so, I think that helps out a lot. Just very versatile."
Pippen, a 6-10, 240-pound junior college transfer, has struggled at times to guard opposing bigs out on the perimeter as he's transitioned into Division I basketball. Against Lamar, he was forced to come out on forward Colton Weisbrod, which took him out of the paint. Pippen played only 12 minutes as SIU went to the smaller lineup, and the Salukis won by 10, 71-61.
The Wolf Pack, which has an RPI of 16, will either struggle to guard Pippen, SIU's third-leading scorer (12.4 points per game) and top rebounder with forward Jonathan Wiley (5.6 per game), or dictate how much the Salukis can use him. Caleb Martin, a much better 3-point shooter (45.8 percent) than his twin brother, Cody (2 of 11), is one of five players on Nevada that has scored 20 or more points.
Caroline, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman Team in his one season with SIU in 2014-15, has produced three of his five double-doubles in his last five games. A part of the mass exodus from the program after the 2015 season, the Champaign native is one of nine transfers on former NBA coach Eric Musselman's retooled roster in Reno. The Martin twins came from North Carolina State, and starting guard Kendall Stephens came from Purdue.
Nevada has won two straight games after losing at Texas Tech Dec. 5th by six in overtime and by four to 20th-ranked TCU Dec. 8th in the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at Los Angeles. The Wolf Pack's four true road wins are tied for the most in the NCAA, and the Mountain West Conference preseason favorites have beaten three other league favorites during their 10-2 start. Nevada topped Big Sky favorite Idaho at home, Atlantic 10 favorite Rhode Island at home, and UC Davis, the preseason favorite in the Big West, in Reno Tuesday night.
SIU has won a season-high three straight after falling to Southeast Missouri State at SIU Arena, 75-69. The Salukis moved to their current four-guard starting lineup with Pippen the game after that, against Jackson State Dec. 13th.
SIU comes off one of its best performances of the season against a struggling UNC A&T club. The Salukis hit a coach Barry Hinson era-record 14 3s on 25 attempts in their 102-64 win and had 24 assists on 38 buckets. The 24 assists were one off the Hinson era record. Six players finished in double figures, and point guard Marcus Bartley had nine points and five assists in 28 minutes.
SIU led by as much as 21 points in the first half and by as much as 38 in its biggest win of the season. Wiley said the Salukis have to play that hard, for that long, if they want to compete this weekend against Nevada and Duquesne (8-3), which they will play Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.
"We just wanted to keep it going all the way through Vegas," he said. "We definitely need the momentum going into Vegas, a couple of those games, so coach just wanted to emphasize playing a full 40 minutes, being able to finish out games, because that's gonna be one of the things we have to do when we get to Vegas."