One of the most anticipated SIU men's basketball seasons in over a decade nearly ended with a historic victory Friday night.
The Salukis led second-ranked Kentucky for more than 19 minutes before falling 71-59 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. SIU led by eight in the first half and didn't go down double digits until three minutes were left in the game. The Wildcats took full advantage of their size, outrebounding the Salukis 48-19, 18-7 off the offensive glass, but they also turned it over 19 times.
SIU turned those 19 turnovers into 19 points. Center Kavion Pippen and guard Aaron Cook had two steals. Sean Lloyd, Armon Fletcher and Eric McGill, who played 26 minutes off the bench, also had a theft in SIU's first game against a team ranked either No. 1 or 2 in the country since it beat second-ranked Wichita State on Feb. 11, 2014.
Here are three more things we learned from Friday night's season opener:
No. 1 — Salukis need Fletcher to beat the best
Eight points, three rebounds, one block and one assist in 15 minutes is a nice game by anybody other than Fletcher for SIU.
The fifth-year senior guard/forward made 2 of 4 from the field, including 2 of 3 from the 3-point line, and both his free-throw attempts. He battled foul trouble most of the game, and fouled out with 9:20 to play. The Salukis trailed 52-50, but went down nine about four minutes later. SIU scored only nine points after Fletcher fouled out.
"When you take our best player off the floor, he only played 15 minutes. That was hard for us to adjust," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "We went to the YMC 6-foot and under league the last six minutes of the game. That was a big challenge for us. But we fought. I can't discount anything we did."
SIU (0-1) will win games without Fletcher playing like a first team all-conference player. The Salukis return four other starters, plus Eric McGill and Thik Bol, and all of those guys will have some huge games this season. But to beat the big dogs, like Kentucky, SIU needs Fletcher on the floor. He is a mismatch down low, has improved his 3-point shot, and has that "Dawg," as Lloyd likes to call it, in him.
No. 2 — Cook may be able to lead this team
Cook might not be the only leader on this team — the Salukis talked about their collective leadership before the season — but he certainly appears to be a great candidate for the on-the-court voice when the chips are down.
Cook had several big buckets in Friday's loss and scored a game-high 18 points. Cook made 7 of 12 from the field, including 2 of 3 from the 3-point line, and added two assists and two steals in 37 minutes.
"We came into this game expecting to win," Cook said. "It was a letdown that we didn't get the win, but I think we played really well and there's a lot to look forward to with this team."
No. 3 — McGill, Bol will play better
SIU's bench was outscored 32-6 at Kentucky Friday night, with the six points from McGill (four) and Bol (two). McGill played 26 minutes in his first game since last November, and Bol went 17 in his first game in over a calendar year.
Both will play a bit better, I imagine, as the season goes along. Practice can only simulate so much, and it will take some time for those two to get into a rhythm. Hinson said Bol's timing would develop as the season went along. Friday, however, the Wildcats altered some shots because they knew Bol was around the rim, and McGill didn't force anything he couldn't handle. The junior guard made 2 of 6 from the field, missed two good looks from 3, and had two assists.
Bol took four shots and made one, a two-handed dunk off a terrific pass by Pippen after he stole the ball in the frontcourt. He had three rebounds, two fouls, one assist and one block. When Bol and McGill get back in shape, they could give SIU some nice options off the bench.