CARBONDALE — The Bradley game stayed with Armon Fletcher longer after his mid-level sprained foot healed up.
Fletcher, a 6-foot-5, 207-pound load of potential from Edwardsville, missed all nine of his 3-point attempts in SIU's 60-51 loss at Peoria in both teams' Missouri Valley Conference openers. Hardly anybody else made any triples that night for the maroon and white — the Salukis went a combined 2 of 26 behind the arc — but the failure stuck with Fletcher long after the buzzer sounded.
"I really didn't do too much, didn't practice or anything, so, I was off of it, so when I came back I was healed," said Fletcher, who sat out three games before returning against Illinois State. "I just think it was mental. Going 0 for 9 in the Bradley game, and then getting hurt, just took a mental toll on me. I didn't know how to handle it."
Fletcher got back in sync against the Redbirds, sinking 3 of 8 from the field, 2 of 4 behind the arc, and all four of his free throws for 12 points in 28 minutes. The Salukis lost by seven to the team that ended up tying Wichita State for the regular-season title, but rebounded to tie for third place with Northern Iowa. Fletcher never made more than half his 3-point attempts in another game the rest of the season, other than on Senior Day against Loyola, when he made 3 of 4 and scored 14 points.
Fletcher doubled his scoring and rebounding output to 11.1 and 4.8 per game, respectively, and stole 40 passes a year after swiping 20 as a redshirt freshman. His 3-point shooting actually went up 0.6 percent from his previous season, and he was named to the MVC Most Improved Team. SIU beat Loyola in the Valley tournament quarterfinals, but fell to the Redbirds in the semifinals and missed the postseason for the ninth straight year.
To try to get the Salukis back, Fletcher looked in the mirror, and went back to the gym to improve his mechanics. He tended to fade to the side on his jumper sometimes, he said, or kicked his legs out, or put too much air under it.
"I really haven't put too much pressure on myself. Just go out there and have fun, and stay focused, and stay in the gym, and have fun with my guys," Fletcher said. "I feel like I've been shooting the ball really well. This has probably been the best I've shot the ball. I changed a lot of my mechanics with my jump shot from last year, just to help me stay more consistent, and I worked on ballhandling. Being in the weight room a lot helped, so, it's easier to get to the basket and create fouls."
A 75 percent free-throw shooter, he drew only 72 attempts in 30 games. SIU coach Barry Hinson, who has always been bullish on Fletcher's pro potential, said he'd like to see him hit the boards as hard as he hits the road for the rim this season. Without second team all-conference forward Sean O'Brien, or the injured Thik Bol, the Salukis enter the 2017-18 campaign without more than 45 percent of their rebounding.
"I have never held back on my expectations for Armon Fletcher," Hinson said. "Never have and never will. I think he has a high ceiling. Armon needs to do a better job defensively. He's got to get a little Dennis Rodman in his blood. I'm not talking about off the floor, I'm talking about on the floor. He's got to become that type of rebounder that every time that shot goes up, you've got to worry about him getting on that offensive glass."
To help SIU inside, Hinson brought in 6-10 center Kavion Pippen, a dominating low-post scorer at Three Rivers (Missouri) Community College that averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. Pippen blocked more than 50 shots last season, and with Bol out until early-to-mid-December with a knee injury, becomes the Salukis' lone back-to-the-basket threat. With the return of two of their top-four 3-point shooters, Fletcher (47-143, 32.9 percent) and Sean Lloyd (23 of 66, 34.8 percent), and new additions like Marcus Bartley and Eric McGill, SIU will be tough to zone. Fifth-year senior Tyler Smithpeters, who is one triple from tying Paul Lusk for 20th in school history in made 3s, could make it impossible.
And Fletcher could get back to his breakout sophomore season, a year later, and lead the Salukis back into the Valley championship race.
"He's got to shoot the ball a lot better, and he has so far," Hinson said. "I think Armon was on his way to a really phenomenal sophomore year last year, until he got hurt. And when he got hurt, I think that took him out of sync. I think he's going to have a really good year for us."