SIU's men's basketball team opens Missouri Valley Conference play at Northern Iowa Thursday night a lot like it began the season: undermanned.

The Salukis (8-5) will definitely be without starting forward Thik Bol, a preseason all-conference second team pick that hasn't played all season because of a knee injury. They are also expected to be without starting point guard Marcus Bartley, who is recovering from a lower back injury suffered when he slept on it wrong in Las Vegas, and backup guard Eric McGill (hand). Backup forward Jonathan Wiley had a case of the flu earlier this week and was doubtful for the game, SIU coach Barry Hinson said Wednesday night, but made the trip in the hopes the team could get him some meds so he could play a few minutes.

Northern Iowa (8-4) has lost its last two games, but they were against Iowa State (76-65) on a neutral court in Des Moines and sixth-ranked Xavier (77-67) at home. The Panthers were picked second in the preseason poll, and have lived up to the hype with quality wins over SMU, North Carolina State, UNLV and UT-Arlington.

They also have the eighth-best scoring defense in the country (60.5 points per game allowed). Forward Bennett Koch, the Panthers' leading scorer (15.1 points per game) and leading rebounder (7.4 per game), was a preseason all-conference first team pick. He also leads the team with 10 blocks.

SIU has won four of its last five games heading into conference play, but has been a hard team to read because of its injuries. Here are five things we learned from the Salukis' non-conference run:

No. 1 — Pippen has been lights out from the start

Center Kavion Pippen has been SIU's brightest surprise in light of the injury to Bol, the team's top shot blocker and top returning rebounder. Pippen, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior college transfer from Three Rivers (Missouri) Community College, is the Salukis' top rebounder (5.3 per game), third-leading scorer (12.1 points per game) and the second-best shot blocker in the Valley with 25 rejections in 13 games.

Normally junior college transfers take some time to get acclimated to Division I ball, scouting reports, etc. Pippen's adjustment was accelerated with Bol's injury, and he has been terrific. His biggest impediment has not been foul trouble, but the inability of SIU to get him the basketball. Pippen consistently draws double teams because he can shoot over people, as well as in between people, and he has great hands and feet. Everything is towards the rim, into contact, and he's shooting a team-best 58.5 percent from the field.

Pippen is also a great free-throw shooter at 76 percent (19 of 25). 

No. 2 — These Salukis can guard

With added experience and length, Hinson thought this team would be improved, defensively, and they've proven that. Opponents are shooting 41 percent from the field so far - not great but not awful - and 32.5 percent from the 3-point line.

Not surprisingly, the Salukis are 7-0 when teams shoot under 41 percent so far. Sean Lloyd, Armon Fletcher and Aaron Cook, as well as Marcus Bartley, give SIU some great perimeter defenders, and Pippen has been a great 1-on-1 defender so far. Wiley can guard bigger players, as can Fletcher and Lloyd, which gives the Salukis some versatility there. 

They have to rebound to continue to be successful as they get into Valley play. Teams have played very different schedules, but going into conference play this week, SIU is one of three teams with negative rebounding margins (Drake minus-1.5 and Illinois State minus-7.7) are the others. 

No. 3 — Lloyd can lead

Lloyd doesn't have to be the best player to lead this team, but he does have to be the most focused. And the 6-5 junior can certainly do that.

Lloyd has lived up to be a defensive stopper - his 18 steals lead the team - and he has shown the ability to make a difference without scoring. The Salukis will need him going forward, as they face some pretty tough guards, and defense travels. If SIU can guard consistently, it can weather some of these injuries against some of the lesser teams in the league, and Lloyd can set the tone.

"That's who we are. We want to be a defensive team, hold teams to 39.9 (percent shooting)," Lloyd said after SIU held Duquesne to 36.5 percent from the field in a 10-point win Saturday in Las Vegas. "I think we held them to 37 percent, so we did good." 

No. 4 — Cook, Stradnieks are much improved

Cook has always been a great defender, and worked hard in the offseason on his jump shot and ballhandling. He led SIU to four wins in its first six games without Bartley, and has played so well Hinson hasn't been able to keep him out of the starting lineup even after he returned.

Cook tripled his scoring average from last season during the non-conference schedule, from three points per game as a true freshman to 10.1 this year. He is shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line, second only to Lloyd's 44.7, and converted some huge buckets against the Dukes Saturday. His drive-and-dish to Rudy Stradnieks, another player who has greatly improved this season, pulled the Salukis within two with 6:41 to go. Cook's two free throws with less than six minutes to go gave SIU a 55-53 lead.

Stradnieks can still rebound at a higher level, but has become a capable backup center to Pippen in his third season and a legit low-post scorer when he gets position. When Bol returns he'll add to the depth in the frontcourt, which can now play big with Pippen and Stradnieks or small with Fletcher and Wiley.

No. 5 — The MVC race is, indeed, wide open

SIU could easily be 11-2 if it had defeated Saint Louis on the road, Southeast Missouri State at home and Murray State on the road. Even without Bol, the Salukis had enough talent to win those games, but, hopefully, now have learned from them.

If Bol returns - fingers crossed, as he was scheduled to start practicing Friday - SIU can contend in the Valley if it can defend, rebound and play an inside-out game with Pippen. The Salukis are starting to shoot it better from the 3-point line, and they have no excuse, because they've gotten open looks all season. They can hurt a lot of teams with a small lineup of five guards, simply because not many Valley teams have dominating post players (Northern Iowa is one of them but even Missouri State has some posts that play on the perimeter), and they can play big with Pippen inside. 

Every team in the league has holes, including SIU. Northern Iowa doesn't rebound very well and doesn't have a ton of great inside players outside of Koch. Missouri State is the deepest team in the league but hasn't experienced a ton of success yet with its core group. Illinois State, Bradley, Loyola and Valparaiso all have pluses and minuses. The Salukis will find out a lot about themselves in their first four games, but have an easier time at the end, and if they get everyone back, they could be at their best in late February and March. 

todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com

618-351-5087

On Twitter: @THefferman

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Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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