CARBONDALE — No one has profited more from SIU’s small ball style this season than senior guard Jeff Early.
Despite Early scoring only eight points in Wednesday’s loss at Western Kentucky, the 6-foot-1 senior guard leads the Salukis in scoring and rebounding after six games at 16.5 and 8.5 per game, respectively. Last season, his first at SIU after transferring in from Monroe (N.Y.) College, Early averaged 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
If he can keep it up, Early, a former high school wide receiver who is only 187 pounds, would finish with the highest rebounding average for a single season since Rashad Tucker grabbed 8.7 per game 16 years ago.
“Coach (Barry) Hinson put me at a great position. Putting me at the 4, it puts the defense in a bind,” Early said. “They got big men guarding me, and I’m able to create, and create for my players. Rebounding is all effort to me. I’m 6-1 going against big boys. It’s all effort. You just have to fight harder than the person boxing you out.”
The Salukis may not have a 6-10 center, but appear to have the fight Hinson’s squads have showed over the years.
Last season, SIU dropped 14 of its 23 losses by 10 points or more. This year, after a 4-2 start, the Salukis have outscored their opponents 408-375 and lost by a combined 11 points behind Early, point guard Kendal Brown-Surles and junior transfer Desmar Jackson.
Led by Early’s rebounding, SIU has outrebounded its first six opponents by an average of 5.2 boards a game without a starter over 6-5.
“The one guy that rolled his eyes when we talked about this hybrid position was Jeff Early, and he’s not rolling his eyes any more. I think Jeff’s bought into this hybrid position,” Hinson said. “We really need Josh Swan to buy into it. That will help us. It will be very difficult to play Jeff Early 30 to 35 minutes a game. We don’t want to do that. Jeff may think he wants to do that, but when you get to games in late January and early February, you can’t have guys play 30 to 35 minutes a game and that also goes for Kendal.”
Heading into next week’s game at Green Bay (3-5), Early is averaging 32 minutes per game, second-highest on the team.
Brown-Surles, a senior point guard who has 19 assists to nine turnovers in six starts, averages 33.5 minutes per game. Brown-Surles has played less than 34 minutes only once this year, against Benedictine-Springfield on Nov. 17, when he played 22.
Jackson hasn’t played enough for SIU.
The 6-5 guard/forward scored a game-high 22 points Wednesday against the Hilltoppers in 29 minutes. Jackson played the last five minutes of the first half with three fouls. In his last two games, Jackson, the one guy who seems to relish being one of the team’s tallest starters at 6-5, has made 18-of-35 from the field and scored 47 points.
“I just go out and play my game,” Jackson said. “The offense is a lot of pick-and-roll, you can pick and choose what time you want to attack and when you want to pull up. You just gotta go with the flow.”
Not big or tall, SIU’s small ball flow involves transition buckets and frustrating offensive matchups.
Teams have caught on a bit to the Salukis’ ability to score in transition, limiting SIU to six fast break points in its last two games. The Salukis scored 50 fast break points in their first three games, but, with four guards including Early, they have given opponents a lot to think about.
The Phoenix, a member of the Horizon League, will give SIU some things to think about when the two match up at the Resch Center on Saturday. Green Bay has started 7-foot-1 center Alec Brown, 6-9 forward/center Brennan Cougill and 6-7 guard/forward Jordan Fouse almost every game this season.
On Twitter: @Todd_Hefferman