SIU's men's basketball team became the first to outrebound San Jose State Saturday, and got four starters into double figures in a 76-58 win at SIU Arena.
The Salukis (4-2) gave the Missouri Valley Conference a 5-4 edge in the Mountain West-MVC Challenge with the win over the Spartans (2-5). Drake lost in double overtime at Wyoming Saturday night, which will leave it up to Bradley (7-1) to either get the league a win or a draw. The Braves play at San Diego State (5-2) at 5 p.m. today in the final game of the 10-game series, which tied 5-5 last season.
The home team has won every game in the MWC-MVC Challenge this season. Bradley is off to its best start in 32 seasons.
Here are three things we learned from SIU's second win in a row Saturday:
No. 1 - Pippen getting more confident
When Kavion Pippen signed with SIU earlier this year, we all thought he could be the dominant center the Salukis haven't had in a while. Well, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior has been better than expected, with excellent hands, good timing on defense, and a lot of basketball IQ. Despite constant double teams, and him going at opponents as much as they go at him, Pippen has avoided foul trouble so far, and had four steals in Saturday's win.
Pippen's season-high 22 points came fairly easily once he got the basketball. Some credit goes to the guards, who found him in positions to score right away, but Pippen continues to develop, against some pretty good size.
"He finished, and he finished against size," SIU coach Barry Hinson said after Pippen converted 9 of 10 from the field. "They've got a good group. They've got size, but it all starts with our guards getting him the basketball, and we didn't get him the basketball until the first media timeout, and then we, obviously, made an emphasis of that."
San Jose State doubled Pippen early, but sagged off him a bit early in the second half when SIU dropped a few jumpers. Jonathan Wiley, who made 5 of 7 from the field with a sore thumb, became a difficult matchup for the Spartans' taller forwards. When they tried to get to Pippen after he got the ball, he'd already put it up and scored. And when San Jose State fouled him, Pippen stepped up to the line and calmly dropped 4 of 4 at the free-throw line.
"I just tried to be aware of when the double team did come, and just pass it out," Pippen said. "Make sure I looked for the open guy, and make the right decision."
Pippen has now scored 10 or more points in his first six games this season. Sean O'Brien, nor Thik Bol, did that last season.
No. 2 - Salukis can live with a few 3s a game
Hinson, and let's face it, the rest of us, hoped SIU would greatly improve behind the 3-point arc this season. So far that hasn't happened, despite bringing back Armon Fletcher, Sean Lloyd (who was one of the team's best 3-point shooters in the last month of the season) and adding Eric McGill.
After sinking just 4 of 18 from the 3-point line in Saturday's win over San Jose State, SIU is still shooting just 31.9 percent (36 of 113). Fortunately, opponents are shooting just 28.6 percent (36 of 126) and Aaron Cook has turned into the team's best shooter there. Cook, a sophomore point guard who took only 27 3s last season, is 8 of 17 behind the arc (47.1 percent) this season.
The Salukis' ineffectiveness there is concerning, because the majority of them have been open looks, but don't get too locked into SIU having to produce there. With Bol, SIU had the fourth-best scoring defense in the Valley in conference games, and of the top-seven 3-point shooting teams in the league last season, only two of them finished ahead of the Salukis (Wichita State and Illinois State).
No. 3 - Transition offense in late-season mode
Cook scored two of the quickest points you'll see this season in the final five minutes of Saturday's blowout. Shortly after Pippen blocked a shot, Cook picked it up and went coast-to-coast in five seconds for a 67-47 Saluki lead.
SIU scored a season-high 14 fast-break points, a liberal statistic that some teams don't even keep, but you can believe it. The Salukis can attack teams in transition, and when Marcus Bartley and Thik Bol get back, they could be even better.
"They were able to get loose, and we weren't able to sustain any type of defensive flow to keep up with them," San Jose State coach Jean Prioleau said.