CARBONDALE — SIU men's basketball coach Bryan Mullins changed the tone of the program last season, finishing fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference after getting picked last in the preseason poll.
The Salukis, with 10 newcomers, led the league in scoring defense and gave MVC Tournament champion Bradley its closest game of the event in the quarterfinals. Mullins' squad did it with five freshmen/redshirt freshmen and a new tradition of winners. Three of SIU's freshmen/redshirt freshman had won at least one state championship in high school, and three others led their prep teams to the state Final Four or the championship game (Lance Jones, Harwin Francois and Ronnie Suggs). Freshman guard Marcus Domask, SIU's leading scorer (13.6 points per game), second-leading rebounder (5.2 per game), top 3-point shooter, and top free-throw shooter, was named Valley newcomer and freshman of the year.
Mullins can't comment on his 2021 commitments until they sign a national letter of intent in November, but Scott Burgess, the senior scouting director for Prep Hoops Illinois (prephoops.com/illinois), believes SIU's class may make a big impact. Two of the Salukis' three recruits for the 2021 class are from the Prairie State, with the third, 6-foot-5 guard Foster Wonders, a Mr. Basketball candidate in Michigan this winter.
"Bryan has connections throughout the state of Illinois. He did a really good job as an assistant as a recruiter, and I'm not surprised at all how he's done as a head coach," Burgess said. "Jevon Mamon and his brother, Brendan, are both really good recruiters, as well and have experience of recruiting Illinois at their previous stops. They just know the area and know who to get connected with, and how to build those relationships. I think they have a pretty good idea of who they have a shot at, and go after them aggressively."
Troy D'Amico, a 6-7 forward at Niles Notre Dame, and Mundelein High School center Scottie Ebube are both in Burgess' top 10 rankings for the state. Wonders had 14 offers before committing to SIU and was ranked the seventh-best player in Michigan by MLive.com in the 2021 class.
"(D'Amico) was the most productive guy for them last year. He did a little bit of everything," Burgess said, noting Niles Notre Dame has three of the top-15 players in the state with D'Amico, Harvard recruit Louie Lesmond and football and basketball recruit Anthony Sayles. "I think his all-around game really improved. Early in his career he was really known as just a shooter with size, but he definitely improved his ballhandling a lot, being able to take people off the bounce. His athleticism made major jumps throughout his junior year, and I think he's an excellent get for SIU."
D'Amico averaged 15.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and three assists per game last season for the 29-5 Dons. They reached the Class 3A sectional finals before the coronavirus pandemic shut the season down.
Ebube, a 6-8 center, will enter college in 2021 with a play-right-now body, Burgess said.
"With him you're looking at a big, physical 6-8 center that is going to be one of the bigger, stronger players in the Valley," he said. "He's built like a brick wall. Broad shoulders, strong upper body, hard to move off the block. He's a high-level rebounder. He can really rebound the basketball, goes after them aggressively, in traffic. Strong hands. Offensively, he's a power player that makes tough, power moves on the block."
Wonders averaged 27.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.9 steals per game for a 21-1 squad that was about to appear in the district finals before the pandemic ended its season. Named Upper Peninsula Mr. Basketball the last two years by the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association, Wonders is 561 points from becoming Iron Mountain's all-time leading scorer. He played mostly on the perimeter last season, he said, but spent a fair amount of time in the post, too. That versatility helped the Mountaineers go 64-4 since Wonders joined the varsity.
"Shooting and my basketball IQ are probably my best attributes," Wonders said. "I played a little bit at the point guard, and both wing spots. Sometimes they put me down in the paint."
This year, SIU has five returning players, including Harvey, from last season's 16-16 squad. All of them are on campus and working toward competing this winter, if the pandemic allows them to.
"We were able recently to get our guys back on campus, and it was great to see them," Mullins said. "I think we have a great foundation coming back with Marcus (Domask), Lance (Jones), Trent (Brown), and Sekou (Dembele). Sekou was hurt for a lot of the season, but he's back. Ben Harvey was a transfer who sat out who will be eligible to play. We had to add a lot of new players for this year's roster. I'm really excited for everyone who joined our program. I think they're all about the right stuff."
On Twitter: @THefferman