SIU's men's basketball team will try to snap a four-game losing streak Tuesday night against North Carolina Central, the Salukis' fourth game against a current member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in the last five years.
The Salukis (2-4) haven't won since topping UTSA in their first game of the Sunshine Slam in Florida on the opening weekend of the season. NCCU (2-4) comes off a win over non-Division I Bluefield State and has only one victory against a Division I opponent, beating USC Upstate 73-64. The Eagles have two starters back from last season's 18-16 squad that reached the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year, senior guard Randy Miller Jr. (16.3 points per game, 3 rebounds per game) and senior forward Jibri Blount (14.3 ppg., 9.2 rpg.).
Here are three things to watch in Tuesday night's game at the Banterra Center:
No. 1 — Turnovers turning into Saluki offense: SIU has been best when it's been able to create offense from its defense, and NCCU gives the ball away like it's a tax credit. The Eagles have 104 turnovers in six games (17.3 per game) and are allowing opponents to shoot 41.9% from the field. A Saluki offense that is last in the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring would welcome some transition opportunities.
SIU will be without its top steals guy, senior guard Aaron Cook, who is second in the nation in thefts with 19. Senior guard Eric McGill has only three steals in six games, and will be a problem for NCCU. The Salukis will be playing three true freshmen a lot of minutes, so Lance Jones, Trent Brown and Marcus Domask will have to be ready for a possible full-court press and half-court traps.
No. 2 — Defending without fouling: Miller, a preseason second team all-conference pick, has 35 free-throw attempts and 31 makes in six games (88.6%). The Salukis must do their best to keep the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder out of the lane, where he can find two other guys that shoot better than 40% from the 3-point line.
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Miller, NCCU's leading scorer, has only six assists, but is 44.8% from behind the arc (13 of 29).
"He's a big-time scorer," SIU coach Bryan Mullins said. "I think he averaged 15 or 16 for 'em last year, about the same this year. He's played in the NCAA Tournament. He can shoot the ball extremely well, so I think that sets up his drive, but he's got a great first step and he's got that on his mind every time he touches the ball, for sure."
One of the reasons SIU couldn't get on top of Murray State last week was because the Salukis sent the Racers to the line 39 times. They made 30, scoring nearly half of their 79 points without a defender.
No. 3 — Get off the losing streak: However it can do it, SIU has an opportunity to snap its four-game losing streak and get back to feeling good about itself before going to a very good Saint Louis team Sunday. The Salukis must find a way to win at home however it can, whether it's surprising the Eagles with a 2-3 zone, getting a big contribution from guard Karrington Davis, or slowing down the game enough to win a contest in the 50s.
When you play as many newcomers to Division I as the Salukis do — at least seven will play Tuesday night — you're not going to be as consistent, especially with four freshmen out of that seven. Davis is expected to make his Division I debut after missing all of last season at Nebraska with a torn Achilles tendon, and Sekou Dembele made his collegiate debut last week at Murray State. Both could be big contributors this season, as Davis is a long 6-6 that can shoot it and makes winning plays, and Dembele is more athletic than Barret Benson and 6-11, 250-pound center Stevan Jeremic are.