Sports Column | Les Winkeler: Salukis' season surprise

Sports Column | Les Winkeler: Salukis' season surprise

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There was a headline in The Southern Illinoisan earlier this week I didn’t expect to see this basketball season -- “Salukis go for fourth straight win.”

Frankly, I’m probably not the only one surprised by that.

There is a long way to go in the Missouri Valley Conference season, but SIU is perched near the top of the standings. You don’t need a good long-term memory to recall the Salukis were picked dead-last in the preseason poll.

At this point, the “Overachiever” label fits quite nicely.

Some question marks about the 2019-2020 season existed prior to Barry Hinson announcing his resignation following the MVC tournament last year. The Salukis were returning several players, including starters Aaron Cook and Eric McGill, but the roster was clearly guard heavy.

The experience level took a hit when Darius Beane followed his father, former assistant coach Anthony Beane, to Northern Illinois University. There were a couple other defections, as can be expected with any coaching change.

As the preseason poll might indicate, things looked bleak around the Banterra Center.

Yet, Brian Mullins knitted together a curious roster of steady grad transfers and promising freshmen. Viewed as individuals, the Saluki roster is not as impressive as others, but throw in heaping doses of chemistry, defense and hard work and “Voila” you have a credibly competitive team.

Aesthetically speaking, this isn’t a particularly pretty basketball team.

However, the team mirrors Mullins’ approach to the game when he was a player. Mullins wasn’t the most athletic player on the roster, wasn’t the best shooter. But, he was the glue that held the team together with grit and a smart approach to the game.

Not surprisingly, defense is the key to this team’s success.

The most recent example is SIU’s come from behind win at Illinois State last weekend. The Salukis endured some lengthy scoring droughts, but made enough key plays down the stretch to grind out a win.

They don’t award style points in basketball. A “W” looks good, no matter the opponent. Once the win is recorded, process becomes secondary.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the 2019-20 season is that three freshman are playing major roles in the team’s success.

Marcus Domask, a Mullins’ recruit, is the best overall freshman in the MVC. He’s among Valley freshman leaders in scoring, rebounding and assists. He has a complete game. Domask is an excellent 3-point shooter, can get to the glass and is solid defensively.

Lance Jones, a Hinson recruit who opted to stay at SIU, has been running the point since Cook went down with a hand injury. He has become a reliable two-way player. The experience he gained this year is invaluable.

Trent Brown arrived on campus with the reputation of being a marksman from behind the arc. He wasn’t found his scoring touch to date, but is a gritty defender. Brown hasn’t been a starter, but you’ll usually find him on the floor at the end of the game shadowing the opposition’s top-scoring guard.

Throw Harwin Francois, a sharp-shooting sophomore, and a healthy Cook next season – the Salukis won’t be tabbed for last in 2020-21.

LES WINKELER is the former sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at Les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com / on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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