CARBONDALE — In his first public comments since getting suspended for six games for breaking team rules, SIU senior guard Armon Fletcher apologized for his missteps and asked the public to allow him to move on Friday.
Fletcher, a preseason first team all-conference guard that is SIU's leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, appeared contrite at an afternoon news conference on the concourse of SIU Arena.
"First off, I would like to issue an apology to my basketball family, my coaches, the university, and my family back at home," Fletcher said. "The situation was a violation of team rules. Coach (Barry) Hinson gave me a set of those rules when I committed here and I fell short of one or two of 'em. I just want to apologize to you guys, my basketball family, because that's the only one that really matters to me. I'm just ready to get back on the court and do whatever I can to earn my team's trust back, the coaches and then my family.
"I'm just ready to get the thing rollin' and leave what happened in the past in the past."
SIU (9-7, 2-1 Missouri Valley Conference) went 3-3 without Fletcher, beating Southeast Missouri State on the road Dec. 8 and knocking off Missouri State and Northern Iowa in its first two league games. Fletcher scored 21 points in 28 points off the bench in Tuesday's 82-70 loss at Drake and is expected to rejoin the starting lineup Saturday against Valparaiso (10-6, 3-0).
The Crusaders took over sole possession of first place with a 61-50 win over Bradley (8-8, 0-3) Tuesday. The Salukis, Illinois State (9-7, 2-1), preseason Valley favorite Loyola (9-7, 2-1) and Evansville (8-8, 2-1) are all a game back entering the second weekend of conference play.
After a 22-point drubbing at Texas A&M Dec. 19, Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich sent graduate transfer Deion Lavender (a former Saluki) and his leading returning scorer, junior guard Bakari Evelyn, to the bench. Lottich moved junior guard Markus Golder (10.3 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game) and freshman point guard Daniel Sackey into the starting lineup, and the Crusaders have won four straight.
"Right now we're competin' at a pretty high level across the board, and it's beneficial having two high-level guys coming off the bench that had started every game before that," Lottich said. "It's workin' for us now, but, again, we evaluate every day in practice. There's an expectation that you go out and compete every day in practice. If they don't do that, the starting lineup could change."
An ankle injury to leading scorer Ryan Fazekas could force Lottich to shuffle the lineup again. Fazekas, a 6-foot-7, 200-pound junior guard/forward who averaged 13.5 points per game during the winning streak, left the Bradley game with a sprained right ankle. Lottich called Fazekas day-to-day in an interview with the Northwest Indiana Times earlier this week.
The Salukis may keep one of its hardest workers in the starting lineup even with Fletcher after a lethargic start at Drake. Fourth-year junior guard Eric McGill, the team's top rebounder at 6.4 per game this season at 6-2, is averaging 8.7 boards a game in conference play. McGill is shooting 48 percent from the field in Valley play (12 of 25) including 50 percent from the 3-point line (7 of 14), and is the Salukis' third-leading scorer at 12.7 points per game.
"I think Eric McGill's our best player right now. I think he's shown he deserves to be on the floor," said Hinson, who could decide to put McGill in Marcus Bartley's starting spot. "I'm probably tipping my cards a little bit, here, but Eric McGill has played phenomenally. Nobody writing stories about him in the Valley, and that shouldn't be."