CARBONDALE — Just over two months ago, sitting on a bar stool at SIU Basketball Media Day, senior forward Thik Bol spoke about practicing with 6-foot-10 center Kavion Pippen.
"Now we've got Kavion, so, we're way bigger now," Bol said. "We can be longer and we can guard better. Even if I come out, Kavion can stay in there and still block shots."
As it turned out, Bol, who blocked 76 shots in 33 starts last season, the third-most in a single season in Saluki history, was right. As the 6-8 Bol sat out the first 14 games of the season, Pippen rejected 26 shots, four in the win over Duquesne in Las Vegas. SIU's 59 blocks as a team lead the Missouri Valley Conference heading into today's 3 p.m. game against Drake (7-7, 1-0 MVC).
Before Bol's knee injury, which was surgically repaired on Nov. 3, SIU coach Barry Hinson hoped to throw Bol and Pippen out there with 6-5 point guard Marcus Bartley, 6-5 Armon Fletcher and 6-5 Sean Lloyd. The Salukis could press, trap, and finally get out and guard the taller perimeter players that gave them fits during conference play. Guys like Illinois State forward MiKyle McIntosh, Missouri State forward Alize Johnson, Loyola's Donte Ingram and Wichita State's Markis McDuffie.
"If we really wanted to go big, we could go big," Hinson said in October. "When you have 6-9, 6-8 out there, and then you've got a guy on the wing that's 6-7, that's pretty good length right there. The problem that that gives us right now is defensively.
"One thing that Thik's done, he's improved a tremendous amount defensively, and we do feel like Thik can get out on the floor and guard some guys."
Bol worked on his perimeter defense all summer, taking on backup point guard Aaron Cook and inside/outside threat Fletcher, SIU's new hybrid forward. Bol figured if he could guard Cook, one of the quickest Salukis on the team, he could guard anyone on the 3-point line.
Fifty-one days after the season opener at Winthrop, we'll finally see at least a glimpse of his progress. Bol, a preseason all-conference second team pick, was cleared to practice for the first time this season on Friday and worked out Saturday, as well. Hinson expects him to play at least a few minutes against the Bulldogs, who will surround 6-8 forward Nick McGlynn and 6-10 Casey Schlatter with four guards.
Drake leads the Valley in offense (78.6 points per game) but is last in the league in field goal percentage defense (opponents shoot 46.8 percent against the Bulldogs). Led by guard Reed Timmer (18.8 points per game), Drake features three double-digit scorers in its starting lineup, and the only senior quartet in the Valley.
SIU (9-5, 1-0) is riding high after ending its 0-11 mark at the McLeod Center on Thursday night with a 56-53 win at Northern Iowa. The Salukis more than matched the eighth-best scoring defense in the country, holding the Panthers to 38.9 percent shooting in their own building, and could only get better with the addition of their best rim protector.
SIU is 33-10 all-time at home against Drake, and has won its last three matchups against the Bulldogs at SIU Arena. The Salukis are 6-1 at home, with the only loss to Southeast Missouri State Dec. 9. Drake is 0-5 in true road games this season.