CARBONDALE - The three-game education at the Diamond Head Classic didn't include any victories for the SIU men's basketball team, but it did provide the Salukis something tangible.
After taking Clemson to the ropes Friday and scoring 77 points against No. 14/15 Xavier, SIU will take some confidence into Missouri Valley Conference play this week. The new-look Salukis (3-8) open league play Thursday night at Evansville (5-5) at the brand-new Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
"We know this. Offensively, I think we got better, moreso than anything, and, defensively, we saw some different-caliber athlete," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "We saw better players. The thing about it with us, we have a lot of new guys in there making plays and doing things for that that we feel, down the road, we're going to be much better because of this tournament."
Freshman forward Dantiel Daniels took the biggest step forward in SIU's 0-3 ordeal against tournament champion Kansas State, Clemson and Xavier. Daniels scored a career-high 22 points in Sunday's 87-77 loss to the Musketeers and finished the tournament with 40 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. The Salukis' go-to player in the second half Sunday, Daniels made 7-of-8 from the field and 8-of-8 at the free-throw line in 28 minutes against the type of frontline SIU won't see in the MVC.
"Playing against guys like those, it boosts my confidence because it lets me know I can play against guys like that," Daniels said. "It gives me confidence going into the Missouri Valley Conference."
Still a work in progress with eight newcomers in the rotation, SIU's development was slowed by injuries, suspensions and key pieces Davante Drinkard and Kendal Brown-Surles missing the first semester to focus on academics.
Daniels missed three games with a pulled groin and backup guard T.J. Lindsay played only four minutes, combined, against Northeastern and Chicago State because of a foot injury.
Fifth-year senior Justin Bocot, whose 46 career starts entering the season were the most on the team, was suspended for four games.
"I think Southern Illinois is probably a little better than their record," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "That's not coach-speak. They have so many guys playing now that weren't on the team or weren't eligible just three to four weeks ago. They've got some talent."
Now the Salukis turn their attention to finding out if they have enough talent to get back into contention for the MVC title. SIU finished ninth in the league last season and eighth the previous year.
On Twitter: @Todd_Hefferman