CARBONDALE — Lance Jones didn't need to look at Marcus Domask to know he was there when he brought the ball up in transition Thursday night against Evansville.
Jones, SIU's flashiest freshmen who had never played point guard before stepping in for the injured Aaron Cook, appeared as if it was going all the way to the rim before bouncing the ball directly behind him on the left wing. Domask, a 6-foot-6 guard who leads all Missouri Valley Conference freshmen in scoring and rebounding, was right there to catch it. Domask's 3-pointer put the Salukis up 23-20 and was part of a personal 14-point run for the former Wisconsin player of the year.
"I gotta give a lot of credit to my teammates. The one 3 I hit, Lance had great court awareness on that, he knew where I was, he knew I was kind of feeling it," said Domask, who scored a game-high 19 points in SIU's 70-53 victory at the Banterra Center. "I had the hot hand at the time, and he delivered a great pass to me, and it was just a matter of me hitting the shot."
Domask made 8 of 11 from the field, including 2 of 5 from the 3-point line, and added a team-high seven rebounds in just over 38 minutes. Jones scored 15 points and had two of SIU's nine assists in 26 minutes. Freshman guard Trent Brown played over 21 minutes off the bench in the win, helping the Salukis (16-12, 10-5 MVC) hold the Purple Aces (9-19, 0-15) without a field goal for more than eight minutes in the second half.
In late February, when some freshmen hit the physical and mental wall of their first Division I seasons, SIU's first-year trio have shown no signs of slowing down. All three played more than 25 games last season, as all three reached the state championship game with their respective high schools (Brown's Pinnacle High School won it all). That kind of experience may be why, some Valley coaches say.
"If you're in the hunt, you're not freshmen any more. You've played 30 or some games, you've talked to them about not being a freshman any more," said Loyola coach Porter Moser, who tutored two of the last six MVC Freshman of the Year Award winners, Milton Doyle in 2014 and Cameron Krutwig in 2018. "It kind of depends on the mental toughness of the individual, and that's why we recruit winners. We want guys that have been in the hunt."
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, who helped A.J. Green win the award last season, said some players deal better with it than others. Green averaged 29.9 minutes a game last season and led the Panthers in scoring (15 points per game) and assists (77 in 34 games).
"It depends on what their role has been. If it's a guy that is playing heavy minutes as a freshman, that can sometimes get to be tough," he said. "It isn't on all of 'em, but can be when you're playing two games a week at the level you need to play at, and the attention to detail you have to have when you're in conference play, it can be for guys playing heavier minutes."
Domask, SIU's leading scorer (14.7 ppg.), is also second on the team in rebounding (5.5 per game), third in assists (70 in 28 games) and tied for third in steals, with 24. Domask averages more minutes than anyone in the Valley, 35.3 minutes per game, regardless of class.
"Taking care of their bodies is big, and our guys have been pretty good about that most of the season, and then just making sure they're doing the right things in the weight room, in the training room, and getting rest off the court is huge," said SIU coach Bryan Mullins, a Hall of Fame point guard here in the late 2000s. "And then just being efficient at practice, making sure that we work on the things we need to work on, and having the guys as fresh as possible for the league games."
With three games to go in the regular season, SIU sits a game out of first place heading into Sunday's contest at Northern Iowa. The Salukis, mathematically, can still finish as low as seventh in the Valley, but have history on their side with a 10-5 mark. No team in league history that has won at least 10 conference games has finished in the bottom four since the MVC went to its current 10-team format at the conference tournament. Another win over the Panthers, who are tied with Loyola for first, would guarantee it and potentially pull SIU into a tie for first with two to play.
Loyola played at Missouri State on Saturday. The Ramblers finish the season at home against Drake and at Bradley.
On Twitter: @THefferman
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