You know what the most frustrating part about watching this season's SIU men's basketball team? The fact they're more comfortable being 10 points down instead of 10 points up.
Senior center Kavion Pippen is starting to be the dominant force we all thought he would be these last few weeks. Armon Fletcher, Sean Lloyd and SIU's two starting juniors, Aaron Cook and Eric McGill, give the Salukis one of the toughest first five in the Missouri Valley Conference. But too often this season, they've fallen asleep in the first half, only to come back and make it interesting in the second half.
"It's not that we're not starting games good, because our stats show that we're leading after the first media timeout," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "Our problem is that mid-first half substitution, and then we get behind, and we've gotta get out of that mode."
After splitting a 43-point second half with Evansville Saturday night, SIU has outscored its opponents by 140 points this season. They trailed by 16 points at the break and by as much as 21 against Northern Iowa before coming all the way back to win in the biggest comeback in the Hinson era.
The Salukis were not as lucky against Murray State, Winthrop, Buffalo and Missouri State. SIU trailed the Racers by 31 points at the break in mid-December and lost 80-52 in the most embarrassing home game this season. Against Winthrop, at home, SIU went down 15 at the break and lost by eight. Fourteenth-ranked Buffalo led the Salukis by 20 points in Buffalo, New York, before they got within nine in the final two minutes.
Missouri State led SIU by 13 at the half last week, and the Salukis went into the locker room thinking "We got 'em right where we want 'em." They tied the game with 9:50 to play, but couldn't find a way to guard the Bears without fouling, and lost 65-59. Missouri State made 17 of 25 free throws, including 8 of 13 in the second half.
Hinson has to take some of the blame for some of SIU's slow starts — half of coaching is motivation — but the players are ultimately in control of their actions. Cook has emerged as a leader for this club, but if one of the six seniors don't take the reins at some point this season, the Salukis won't go far. Seniors are the last to give up, and SIU has more than anybody else in the Valley, but when your best players aren't your leaders, things can get muddled in the heat of battle.
SIU (13-12 entering Tuesday's game against Drake) trailed for only 3 minutes, 38 seconds against Evansville on Saturday in a 78-73 win. The Salukis led by double digits most of the game, only to see the Purple Aces cut the lead to three in the final seconds. Two Fletcher free throws sealed the deal.
SIU never ran away from the Aces, but largely controlled the game. Now we'll see if the Salukis can follow Saturday's performance up with another one this week, when hosting Drake before going to Indiana State Saturday. After a little bit of positive, Hinson believes they may be able to.
"I just told these guys 'We've won three out of our last four games. We need to act like it,' and the one game we lost was a tough road loss at Missouri State," Hinson said after the Evansville win. "They've only been beaten once at home. The big thing with these guys is they don't need negative. They need to hear a little bit of positive, and our whole objective tonight was to try to put ourselves in a position to win this ballgame."