CARBONDALE — In less than 24 hours on Dec. 31, 2017, forward Thik Bol went from being cleared to play against Drake to missing the rest of the season because of a flared up knee. So you could understand Jonathan Wiley's trepidation after warming up before SIU's game against Bradley Sunday.
The senior forward, who tore his ACL, PCL and MCL in his right knee that same day in December against the Bulldogs, had missed the previous six weeks. Wiley rehabbed three to four times a week in the hopes of making an appearance at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in March. Then Wiley got some good news from the Salukis' medical team: his knee was ahead of schedule, and was responding well to treatment.
"When they told me I'd be out for the season I really didn't believe it at the time," Wiley said. "I didn't know when I was going to come back. I didn't think it would be this early, but the doc said I healed up pretty fast. Rehab went well, so he let me get a run at it."
Wiley began his 2018 run 5 minutes and 38 seconds into Sunday's game against the Braves. He walked out onto the court after a media timeout without much fanfare, but everyone at SIU Arena appeared to see him when he was knocked to the ground after snaring a rebound on the left side of the court. Wiley, a 6-foot-7, 201-pound forward who averaged 4.8 boards a game in his first 15 contests this season, got up without a limp.
"That all comes with the way I play. I think I play hard, I think I play tough, so, sometimes you will take a hit or two," Wiley said. "You might fall on the ground kind of awkward, but, it's always getting up. It's always next play."
Three weeks ago, Wiley was in a pool working out. Two weeks ago he was able to run a bit on land. Wiley practiced with the team for the first time Friday, running some 5-on-0 transition drills, and "went all out" on Saturday to test his knee under live conditions. Sunday, he grabbed four boards and scored four points in 13 minutes to help the Salukis top Bradley 74-57.
Then it was back to rehab.
"I still have to manage it," Wiley said. "It'll be interesting to see how next week goes, if my knee flares up, and if it doesn't. It's responded well. It's responded well after rehab, and that's really the only way I'm playing (Sunday), because the last two weeks of rehab went so well."
SIU (17-10, 9-5 Missouri Valley Conference) hosts Missouri State (17-10, 7-7) tonight with its first nine-man game plan in weeks. Wiley can play the 5-man against a smaller lineup and three other positions for the Salukis, who are attempting to beat last season's win total and stay in second place in the Valley. He didn't play in SIU's 79-77 road win against the Bears, but could play a big role against the deepest team in the league.
Missouri State, winners of two straight games for the time since Jan. 17, played nine guys in its 72-55 win over Evansville Saturday. Eight of them played 10 minutes or more. Preseason Valley player of the year Alize Johnson had 11 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, and freshman guard Mustafa Lawrence scored 12 points in his third straight start.
Lawrence, a 6-foot, 186-pound shooting guard from New Jersey, has scored 36 points since entering the starting lineup against league leader Loyola Feb. 3.
"We threw him to the wolves," Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. "We've always been impressed with his toughness and his leadership ability. During the biggest part of the season we hadn't played him because we were winning, and we were going with the upperclassmen. He's been very good in practice. He's been ready. He's taken advantage of his opportunity, and he's really helped us."