CARBONDALE — SIU men's basketball coach Barry Hinson is taking his Emergency Eight into Winthrop tonight.
Junior guard Armon Fletcher, the team's leading returning scorer, dislocated his knee in Tuesday's practice and hasn't worked out since, Hinson said at a Wednesday press conference. The team's medical staff has not ruled him out, Hinson said, and he will travel with the team to South Carolina, and will be a game-time decision.
"If we can play him Friday, we're going to play him Friday," Hinson said. "My gut is right now that probably won't take place, but at the same time, we're going to do everything we can. It will be a decision based on our medical staff, and Armon, himself."
If Fletcher can't go against the defending Big South Conference tournament champions, the Salukis could be down to eight players because forward Austin Weiher is also doubtful for tonight's opener. Weiher, a 6-foot-8 forward that could help SIU's frontcourt depth, just began practicing this week after getting bone spurs removed from his foot. Junior center Kavion Pippen, a 6-10, 240-pound righty that scored a game-high 23 points in 23 minutes in SIU's only exhibition game, is slated to start in the middle of SIU's reconstructed offense.
Senior forward Jonathan Wiley is expected to make his second career start with Pippen in the frontcourt, with 6-9 forward Rudy Stradnieks and 6-5 redshirt freshman guard/forward Brendon Gooch his only subs. Fifth-year senior Tyler Smithpeters, a welcome addition to SIU's 3-point attack, junior Sean Lloyd and junior Eric McGill are expected to start in the backcourt if Fletcher can't go.
Winthrop, which returns two starters, has 17 players on its roster, but five of them are freshmen. Senior forward Xavier Cooks has NBA talent and is a preseason first team pick in the Big South, but likely won't guard Pippen when the two teams tip-off at 6 p.m.
"Their big question mark is who are they going to play inside? They've got a 6-10 Australian kid. They've got another big kid from Indian Hills (Community College) that is a real athletic player, but they gotta figure out how to guard us, too," Hinson said. "We're gonna go in there with eight guys, and we're gonna find out where we are."
Josh Ferguson, a 6-8 sophomore forward who averaged less than three points and three rebounds a game last season, is slated to start opposite Cooks in the Eagles' frontcourt.
Sixth-year coach Pat Kelsey is undefeated in season openers (5-0), but has seven new players. Winthrop competed in Australia on a foreign tour earlier this year, and got 10 extra practices to get guys up to speed, Kelsey said. Guys like Nych Smith, a 5-10, 180-pound junior from Florida Southwestern State who averaged 15.3 points, 5.8 assists and 2.9 steals a game, have acclimated well, he said.
"Nych is a dynamic playmaker. He's very fast. He's strong, and he can score at the rim," Kelsey said. "He can score from the perimeter, as well, and he's got a good sense of the game. He makes people around him better. He's gonna be a good player for us."
Possibly the only Division I men's team in the country potentially down three starters for its opener, SIU has, mentally, turned tonight's game into a major opportunity. If the Salukis can find a way to squeeze out a road win with, possibly, four new starters, against an NCAA Tournament team from a year ago, they could gain a lot of confidence going forward, Hinson said.
"They're, obviously, going to go at us right away. There are some things we can do, defensively. We're not gonna change anything," Hinson said. "There are things we go with into every game we play, and then we'll adjust based on what happens, but it's much like injuries. When we start trying to change the game because of this or that, that's when you start overcoaching. I truly believe less is more, and listen guys, I think this is a great opportunity."
Winthrop hasn't played a team from the Missouri Valley Conference since Nov. 25, 2007, when Missouri State rolled into Winthrop Coliseum, and squeezed out a 73-69 victory. The coach for the Bears that game? You guessed it. Barry Hinson.