CARBONDALE — SIU's men's basketball team closed the first half of the conference season with something it hadn't done in nearly a month: win back-to-back games.
Aaron Cook scored a career-high 25 points and had two of the Salukis' three steals in Wednesday's 82-77 win over Indiana State. The victory put SIU (13-9, 5-4 Missouri Valley Conference) in a four-way tie for third place entering the back half of the league season.
Without preseason all-conference forward Thik Bol, senior forward Jonathan Wiley or backup guard Eric McGill, who were all lost for the season with injuries, the Salukis head to Missouri State (15-7, 5-4) tied with the Bears, Bradley (15-7, 5-4) and Indiana State (10-11, 5-4) in the middle of what could be one of the closest MVC races in years. SIU coach Barry Hinson said he wouldn't let his team look past the weekend, as only one game separates third place from seventh place Illinois State (10-11, 4-5).
"We're at the halfway mark and we're tied for third, and we're one game above .500," Hinson said. "You guys know as well as I do, two weeks ago, you were looking at me like 'We're just trying to figure out if we're going to be in the play-in game (of the MVC Tournament),' because I know how ya think. I've been around long enough."
Hinson tied former Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall for fourth place in MVC history with his 261st career win Wednesday. Whether he leads SIU to its first regular-season Valley title since 2007 will depend on injuries, consistency, and a little luck. OK, a lot of luck.
The Salukis played seven guys an average of 15 minutes or more in the first half of the Valley season, three of them 30 minutes or more (guards Sean Lloyd, Armon Fletcher and Cook). That plan may not change the rest of the way.
Junior forward Rudy Stradnieks scored his first bucket in his last three games against the Sycamores, and redshirt freshman guard Brendon Gooch and junior forward Austin Weiher have played a total of 59 minutes in conference play so far. If senior guard Tyler Smithpeters continues to produce off the bench — he had nine points Wednesday and scored 10 or more in three straight games for the first time in his career — Hinson may stick with the rotation.
"I like Tyler coming off the bench because it gives us a spark," Hinson said. "Loyola does the same thing with (forward Aundre) Jackson. You bring a guy off the bench who gives you a spark, and Tyler has done that for us. I don't know how much we can change what we have. There's only two ways we can go. When Kavion (Pippen) gets in foul trouble and Rudy's not playing to our expectations, we go small. Now, can we go small a lot? In the league, we're fortunate where we can every once in a while."
Pippen, a 6-foot-10 junior college transfer, has been better than advertised. The 240-pound center had to step into a starting role the Salukis thought Bol would fill, and is the team's third-leading scorer (11.5 points per game) and top rebounder (5.8 per game). He's blocked a team-best 31 shots and is shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 62.5 percent at the free-throw line.
New point guard Marcus Bartley carried SIU to its first regular-season sweep of Northern Iowa in 15 years with eight 3-pointers in the two games. The Saint Louis transfer has 57 assists to 37 turnovers in 15 games this season, 12 of them starts.
Fletcher and Lloyd continue to push for all-conference honors. Fletcher is shooting a career-best 50.5 percent from the field and a career-best 35.1 percent from the 3-point line. He leads SIU at 14.4 points per game for the season, has raised it to 16.1 during Valley play, and is the team's second-leading rebounder (5.6 per game).
"Right now is the time teams have to figure out who they are in conference play," Fletcher said. "It's better to get it later than to not have it. Our goal is to just take one game at a time, and to get a series of wins together and try to get some games back so we can get up to that first spot, or second-place spot."
Lloyd, known more as an attacking guard before hitting 22 of 55 3s (40 percent), has led the Salukis where they are mostly behind his defense.
"I think the biggest thing that's added to his game is maturity. I think that's what happens when you play the amount of minutes he's played," Hinson said. " Let's look at Tyler's stats in conference now — fifth-year senior. Sean O'Brien last year same, exact scenario, Anthony Beane his junior year and senior year. I certainly hope that will be the factor with a lot of those guys next year and, hopefully, toward the end of this year that the experience will start buckling up."