CARBONDALE — SIU and Valparaiso's men's basketball teams are both rebuilding under young leaders.
No head coach in the Missouri Valley Conference is younger than Salukis leader Bryan Mullins, who will turn 33 on Jan. 13. SIU (7-8, 1-1 MVC) takes a five-game home winning streak against Valparaiso on Tuesday night at the Banterra Center and has the top scoring defense in the league (60.9 points allowed per game). Four of his 11 newcomers this season are expected to start against the Crusaders (8-7, 1-1), who come off their first road win at Evansville since 1969.
Matt Lottich, 37, is in his fourth season leading Valparaiso's men's basketball team after serving as an assistant coach for three years. The Crusaders are tied for the most road wins of anyone in the Missouri Valley Conference, with three in seven tries, and have played three straight games decided by four points or less. With eight newcomers, two of which are Division I sitouts from last season, Valparaiso lost by four at Arkansas, dropped a 66-63 decision at Loyola to start conference play, and took Evansville to overtime before winning 81-79.
Both coaches see growth in their squads near the halfway point of the season.
"In terms of our defense, they're a little bit better in being in the right spots, more disciplined," Mullins said. "And then, offensively, we're starting to share the ball better. We're having too many turnovers, is our biggest issue right now, especially with the start of Valley play and the defensive scouting reports and how they pick up. We gotta do a better job of taking care of the ball."
SIU forced a season-high 20 turnovers in Saturday's 67-55 win over Illinois State but had 19 of its own, a season-high. The Salukis have had 10 or more turnovers in seven straight games. Without senior guard Aaron Cook, who is still day-to-day, according to Mullins, and experienced some swelling in his injured right hand, SIU has had good contributions from several players. Freshman guard Marcus Domask (14.2 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game) still leads the Salukis in 3-pointers (27) and is second in scoring and rebounding. Center Barret Benson, SIU's third-leading scorer at 10.5 points per game, has scored 27 points in his first two MVC games and grabbed 16 rebounds.
Valparaiso still has its alpha dog on the court, sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty, who leads the Valley in scoring (21.2 points per game) and is fifth in rebounding at 5.5 per game. With Ryan Fazekas out since the Crusaders lost at Saint Louis on Nov. 9, they've leaned on junior forward Mileek McMillan (8.9 ppg., 3.1 rpg.) and two newcomers, Alton guard Donovan Clay (7.9 ppg., 3.5 rpg.) and 6-5 Nick Robinson (8.4 ppg., 4.9 rpg.), who sat out last season after coming over from St. Joseph's.
Lottich has started Clay 12 of 14 games, and seen his game grow since the beginning of the season.
"Not all freshman can respond like Donovan has. He was inserted in the starting lineup in our third game," Lottich said. "I'll tell you one thing about that young man, he's not afraid of the moment. He's getting better every single game, and if you've watched him you understand that there's still a lot of room for growth, but he's getting better during the process, and that's what's exciting for us."
On Twitter: @THefferman
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