CARBONDALE — Armon Fletcher knows exactly where SIU's men's basketball team is in the standings, and exactly how it might get out of the running for the play-in game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
What the 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior guard/forward doesn't know is when things will start to click for a Saluki squad that has dropped five of their last six games.
"What we have to do is get back to having fun, get back to doing the things that we're capable of," Fletcher said. "If we do those things, we can be unstoppable, but it starts in our heads, and, individually, we need to do what we need to do in order to perform as a team."
Individually, Fletcher has been good enough to help SIU (10-11, 3-5 MVC) contend for the Valley championship. Since returning from a six-game suspension for breaking team rules Jan. 8, the preseason all-conference first team pick has scored 10 or more points in five of six games. He's 31 of 68 from the field during that stretch (45.6 percent), with his worst outing, statistically, in the only game SIU won, four points against Northern Iowa.
The Salukis needed a 21-point rally, the biggest of coach Barry Hinson's tenure, to beat the Panthers 70-62. There was no such rally at Loyola on Sunday, as the Ramblers jumped out ahead 42-19 at the break before settling for a 75-50 victory in front of a sell-out crowd. Loyola (13-8, 6-2) took over sole possession of first place, while SIU fell into a three-way tie for seventh place with Indiana State (11-9, 3-5) and Evansville (9-12, 3-5).
The Salukis and Sycamores stand just a game out of fifth place and two out of second, but with 63 turnovers in their last four games, SIU looks nothing like a contender.
"I just think it's small fixes. Most of it comes from the players, us, as a group, as a team," Fletcher said. "We've gotta fix our turnovers and we just gotta do a better job of playing free and not thinking so much on the court. On the offensive end, that kind of paralyzes us."
Time is running out for the Salukis, and Hinson. The second half of the conference season features two games against Evansville, which beat Loyola earlier this season, four games against the current top-four and a road trip to fifth-place Missouri State. With one year left on his contract and a measly $175,000 buyout after the end of this season, Hinson is on the clock to produce SIU's first postseason trip since competing in the NIT in 2008.
The 2016 MVC coach of the year is 109-107 at SIU in seven seasons without a postseason appearance. Hinson's 16 years as a head coach in the Valley (nine at Missouri State and seven here) are more than any current coach in the league, and his 278 wins with those two programs rank fourth all-time in MVC history. The Salukis have won 20 or more games two out of the last three seasons, and were expected to get close to that number this season despite a tougher schedule.
With five returning starters, plus Thik Bol, the Salukis had high expectations. They had two of the best wins in the MVC in the non-conference, beating Tulsa on a neutral floor and Atlantic 10 preseason favorite Saint Louis in Carbondale, but were embarrassed against Murray State at home (80-52 loss) and lost to last-place Bradley at SIU Arena Jan. 20. Hinson said he is doing everything he can to try to get the Salukis back in the Valley race.
"Right now we're our own worst enemy," Hinson said. "We've gotta take care of that, and, like I said, I wake up every day; I wake up a lot because I'm not sleeping a lot, but what I do every day is, I focus on what can we do to get this basketball team better. That's what I'm going to continue to do every single day, every moment that I have."
Some fans and donors have questioned if replacing Hinson before the end of the season — one fan yelled for him to "get his U-Haul" during the UNI game — would turn around the 2019 campaign. Putting an assistant coach in charge, for example, could give the program the jolt it needs. It could also put the program in more turmoil with still half the Valley season yet to play.
A move now could, conceivably, also put the Salukis in a coaching search before anyone else, potentially giving them a leg-up on possible candidates.
SIU athletic director Jerry Kill and/or associate athletic director in charge of internal operations Jeff Jones have been at every single Saluki men's basketball game this season. Kill said evaluations for Hinson, and every coach here, are ongoing.
"I always keep business in-house, and I think that's the way you operate," Kill said in an interview Tuesday. "If you don't do that, and later on, say it's football, and you try to go get another coach, who's going to want to come in and know that they're going to work for somebody that is telling everybody what's going on inside the house? So, I've always kept it (in-house), just like I would my family situations. We keep things in the house, and at the end of the day, I guess, I'm in this situation. I'm held accountable. I've been doing it for 36 years, so I'd like to think that I'm trusted when decisions are made.
"And I've had to make some here, but there's a lot of things that go into making changes."
Kill led SIU's football program from 2001-07, with five straight FCS playoff appearances and three straight Gateway Conference titles. Since taking over Tommy Bell last year, he has hired the Salukis' new women's soccer coach, volleyball coach, director of track and cross country and women's golf coach.