CARBONDALE — While many of you were using your rakes to clean up the leaves in your yard, SIU men's basketball coach Barry Hinson was using his a foot and a half above the rim to get his team ready for No. 2 Kentucky.
Namely, senior center Kavion Pippen, who could be a difference-maker for the Salukis when they head to Lexington, Kentucky, to face the Wildcats (0-1) for the first time. To prepare the 6-foot-10 Pippen for shooting over guys like Reid Travis, a 6-8 graduate transfer from Stanford, 6-10 freshman forward E.J. Washington and 6-11 sophomore Nick Richards, Hinson put orange plastic tips on the rakes, attached them to the rim, and challenged Pippen to shoot over them.
"It's going great," Pippen said. "I'm getting better at it. Gotta continue to get better at it, just work on it each and every day."
In a game against the caliber of talent SIU may not see the rest of the season, Hinson said he couldn't really guess how one of his most talented players would do against the kind of size the Wildcats have. Pippen, who tied guard Sean Lloyd for second on the team in scoring last season at 12.1 points per game, shot a team-best 55.1 percent from the field and was the Salukis' top rebounder at 5.9 per game.
"We're going to find out Friday night at 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock their time. I don't know how to answer that question until we see," Hinson said. "We don't have those guys in our league. There's nobody like Kentucky's length in our league. We're not going to see anybody like Kentucky's length for the entire rest of the season. We may see one guy, but we won't see multiple lines of that."
As highly-ranked as the Wildcats are, they don't have the shot blockers 18th-ranked Louisville did last season with Anas Mahmoud, Deng Adel and that crew. The Cardinals blocked nine shots, three by the 7-foot Mahmoud, one by the 6-7 Adel and five from four other players in an 84-42 rout at the KFC Yum! Center. It was SIU's worst loss of the season, and tied for the third-worst in school history with a 42-point defeat at Wichita State in 2017.
The Salukis have dropped 10 straight games to top 25 opponents and 19 of their last 20. SIU's only win over a top 25 opponent since 2008 came at home in 2013, when Jalen Pendleton's runner in the lane that was blocked was counted after officials called goaltending. The Salukis beat No. 22 Wichita State 64-62, and will have to do what they can to control the pace at Kentucky to have a chance in front of what is expected to be a sold-out crowd.
"The only way you can control pace is to score. That's it. That's the only way you can do it," Hinson said. "If we go up there and get in a hole, like we have in the past with high-major teams, it's just hard to get out of, so we need to get off to a good start. We know there's going to be an unbelievable wave when we start this game."
Kentucky won't care about SIU's lack of success against ranked teams after falling 118-84 to fourth-ranked Duke Tuesday night in the State Farm Champions Classic. The loss in Indianapolis was the worst, points-wise, in the John Calipari era at Kentucky and the worst of his career. The Wildcats have won nine straight home openers and are 303-27 at Rupp Arena (91.8 percent winning percentage) since the 2000-01 season.
"This is one that you grow from," Calipari said. "You learn from and it changes your whole mentality about how you approach it, or it kind of caves you in. We're gonna see. We're playing an opponent, Southern Illinois, (that) brings back their four leading scorers. They've got inside players that can really play. They shoot the ball well. A team that can beat us if we don't play harder than they play, we lose and we move on to the next game. At some point, you, every game, you try to tell them and they don't understand. Duke played with a chip."