CARBONDALE — Moments after Duquesne forward Jordan Robinson put his team up six points on Saturday afternoon, SIU's 6-foot-9 forward started playing like a 6-9 forward.
Rudy Stradnieks, one of the Salukis' MVPs from their split in Las Vegas over the weekend, scored off a drive-and-dish from Tyler Smithpeters and pulled SIU within two with another layup off an Aaron Cook pass. When center Kavion Pippen missed in close, Stradnieks grabbed the offensive rebound and put it back up to tie the game with 5:41 to go. Stradnieks scored eight points to go with his three rebounds in eight minutes off the bench at the Orleans Arena, and SIU ended the Dukes' seven-game winning streak, 74-64.
"I feel like I'm more physical. I've grown some muscle. I've adjusted to the game, since it is a little bit different from European game," said Stradnieks, who is up to 229 pounds as a junior. "It's way faster, more physical, so I'm trying to play more physical. So far, it's been good."
The Riga, Latvia native played like your typical, stereotyped European when he arrived at SIU in 2015 from Lee Academy Prep School in Maine. One of the tallest players on the team, Stradnieks liked the 3-point shot because he was pretty good at it. He missed his only three attempts his freshman season, and was a respectable 40.9 percent behind the arc last season (9 of 22) in limited action.
With Sean O'Brien and Thik Bol, SIU had one of the strongest forward tandems in the Missouri Valley Conference. Stradnieks played in 32 of 33 games last season, but competed more than five minutes in only eight of the Salukis' final 17 contests. On the bench, he studied O'Brien, a four-year starter, the same way he watched his father, former pro Aivars. How he kept balls alive, dove on the floor, and found angles to the basket. How he went after rebounds, and found spaces on the floor against zone defenses.
A year later, Stradnieks has found a niche as SIU's backup center going into tonight's conference opener at Northern Iowa (8-4). He's added a reliable jump hook, is shooting a career-best 53.1 percent from the floor, and is 10 rebounds from matching last season's total.
Stradnieks is 10 of 15 from the field in his last three games, two Saluki victories, for 23 points. He also has five rebounds, three assists and two turnovers during that stretch. If Pippen can't stay out of foul trouble against preseason all-conference forward Bennett Koch, he could play a major role in SIU's attempt to win its first game ever at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The Salukis are 0-11 lifetime at the Panthers' facility, which opened in 2007.
"(Pippen) has to have help. The key for us is Kavion can't get in foul trouble, and we know that's what they're gonna do," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "Not having Thik, they're going to go right at him. Everybody has to help shrink the floor, and help him guard him a little bit."
And they'll have to do it down two starters, a backup guard, and, possibly, a backup forward. Hinson said on Wednesday night starting point guard Marcus Bartley hasn't recovered from his lower back injury and is unlikely to play tonight, and that backup guard Eric McGill (hand injury) and backup forward Jonathan Wiley (flu) could miss the game, too. Wiley did make the trip, Hinson said.
McGill has an MRI scheduled for Friday to look at his left hand, which swelled up after he hit the floor in SIU's win over Lamar on Dec. 17. The Salukis return home to face Drake on Sunday.