ST. LOUIS — Before new SIU men's basketball coach Bryan Mullins could start turning around a program that hasn't reached the postseason since 2009, the players started down that path for him.
Senior guards Aaron Cook and Eric McGill, the team's only returning starters, led the charge.
"When I speak, I feel like everybody listens, and everybody tries to do what I ask 'em to do, along with 'E' and Barret (Benson)," Cook said at Missouri Valley Conference Media Day Tuesday. "I feel like everybody wants to win, so everybody is buying in and doing whatever they can to win."
Cook, McGill and Benson, a graduate transfer center from Northwestern, are all in their final years, along with graduate transfer Ronnie Suggs. Cook and McGill started 32 and 23 games, respectively, during last season's 17-15 run. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Cook was one of the few Salukis that could create his own shot, and finished the year with a career-high 118 assists.
Cook shot 39.4% from the field, 34.8% from the 3-point line (40 of 115), and scored 10.4 points per game. At the defensive end, his 41 steals were the second-most on the team, behind McGill's 48.
McGill, a combo guard that averaged 30.5 minutes a game, 9.5 points per game, shot 47.3% from the field and 40.2% from the 3-point line (35 of 87). Only seniors Marcus Bartley (40 3-pointers), Cook (40), and seniors Armon Fletcher (38) and Sean Lloyd (36) made more triples. Fletcher was a second team all-conference pick after leading SIU in scoring (16.5 points per game) and rebounding (6.1 per game).
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With 10 newcomers, plus redshirt freshman forward Sekou Dembele, the two senior guards were good places to start for a rebuild.
"For me, I'm lucky just to have two seniors that played in the league, had success in the league," said Mullins, a Hall of Fame point guard who helped the Salukis reach their last two NCAA tournament appearances in 2007 and 2008. "For them, I think their work ethic is some of the best I've been around. They love to work. They love to be in the gym. For them to buy into everything that we're trying to teach them is great."
Mullins came from Loyola, where he was the associate head coach under Porter Moser for a team that won the last two MVC regular season titles. After going through the rounds at Media Day, Mullins, Cook and McGill headed back to Carbondale for the team's first official practice of the 2019-20 season.
Four players return from last season's squad, Cook, McGill, junior forward Brendon Gooch and redshirt freshman forward Sekou Dembele. Dembele is still recovering from a stress fracture in his left leg, and might not be on the court for another three or four weeks. Redshirt freshman guard Karrington Davis, a transfer from Nebraska who tore his Achilles last October, can work out but has not been cleared to practice with full contact, Mullins said. Sophomore guard Ben Harvey, a transfer from Eastern Illinois, can practice with the team but has to sit out this season per NCAA rules.
Mullins signed two freshmen, forward Marcus Domask and guard Trent Brown, and added three junior college transfers. Harwin Francois, a 6-4 sophomore guard, came from Daytona State (Florida) College. Walk-on forward Will Keller came from nearby John A. Logan College, and SIU recently added 6-11 center Stevan Jeremic, a junior from Utah State University Eastern who adds much-needed size behind Benson. Freshman Lance Jones, an all-state guard from Evanston Township High School, signed during the Barry Hinson regime and stayed on.
SIU opens the season at home against Division II Minnesota State Oct. 22. The Salukis officially open the 2019-20 season at home against Division III Illinois Wesleyan Nov. 5.
On Twitter: @THefferman