The SIU men’s basketball team is 4-1.

That’s not a sentence I expected to read this season. Four wins seemed possible … for the entire season. Four wins in five games seemed, if not impossible, unlikely.

Granted, the Salukis haven’t faced murderer’s row. There isn’t a ranked team in the bunch. There isn’t a team destined for the NCAA tournament.

But, given the program’s recent struggles, why quibble? Wins, of any kind, are to be savored.

Things will get tougher, much tougher, when the Missouri Valley Conference season rolls around. However, SIU did the right thing in dumbing down the nonconference schedule.

The weaker schedule allowed this team to experience growing pains, while picking up a few wins. It would have been senseless to send this undermanned group out against a big-time schedule to get its brains beat out.

And, we have to be careful not to dismiss the team’s early success.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the four wins is that the team has found ways to win games. For the past four years the Salukis have had the disturbing knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Like most Salukis fans, I experienced a real sense of déjà vu Wednesday night when SIU played Fresno State.

SIU played well enough early in the second half to build a double-digit lead. Fresno State slowly, but surely, chipped away at the Salukis’ advantage, finally taking its first lead with 2:22 to play.

In the past couple years, that likely would have been the tipping point. Chances are the team would have taken a hurried, ill-advised shot, and then folded down the stretch.

Despite my reflexive sense of foreboding, that didn’t happen. Not this time.

Coach Barry Hinson said the team was loose and upbeat in the final timeout. I don’t think loose or upbeat accurately reflects SIU teams in the past few years.

The team went out, and got a stop. They played hard-nosed defense and hit the boards.

Finally, the team wrapped up the win when Desmar Jackson hit a contested 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock.

The Salukis didn’t score off the play that had been designed. And, if Jackson takes that same shot 10 times, I doubt that he makes it twice.

Since it went in, that’s irrelevant.

The fact is, the team didn’t panic. It executed the little things necessary to claim a win.

That’s something Saluki fans haven’t seen in a while.

When Jackson’s shot went in, well, that conjured up a sense of déjà vu from five or six years ago … with a few thousand fewer fans in the stands.

Hey, one step at a time.

LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088.

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