ORLANDO — SIU's men's basketball team is feeling good about itself after winning its opener Tuesday night over Division III Illinois Wesleyan. UTSA is looking for its first win after losing at Oklahoma by 18 points.
The Salukis and Roadrunners face off for the first time Friday night in Kissimmee, Florida, in the three-day, three-game Sunshine Slam. SIU takes on Delaware (1-0) for the first time Saturday at the Silver Spurs Arena, and Oakland (1-0) for the second time in school history on Sunday. The Salukis beat the Golden Grizzlies 97-88 at home in 2015.
Here are three things to watch at Friday night's game against UTSA:
No. 1 — Benson vs. Barisic: SIU center Barret Benson scored a career-high 15 points Tuesday night with a big height advantage. Nearly half his points came from the 3-point line, though, as he hit his first two of the year. Benson worked hard on that shot in the offseason to give the Salukis something they haven't had in a long time, a mobile 5 that you have to guard out on the perimeter.
Nick Evans, a 6-11 center from years back, could run like Benson and finish like Benson around the rim, but he wasn't near the shooter. Luka Barisic, UTSA's starting 6-10 forward, who is also 240 pounds like Benson, took two 3s out of his four field goal attempts at Oklahoma. He missed all of them and had two rebounds in just over 13 minutes. If Benson can use his quickness to score around Barisic inside and make open 3s, he could change how the Roadrunners have to try to guard the Salukis. That could bode well for SIU's guards, who attack with the best of them.
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No. 2 — On the road: Eric McGill, Aaron Cook and Brendon Gooch are really SIU's only players that have played extensively on the road in a Saluki uniform, but, with 11 newcomers and a new coaching staff, everything will be a little new for this team this weekend. Fortunately, coach Bryan Mullins and his staff built the team around older players, who have been in big environments. Friday night will be the team's first test in a much different environment than the Banterra Center.
No. 3 — Making Jackson and Wallace work: UTSA guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace will get their points against SIU, it's just a matter of how many shots it takes them. Jackson, the preseason player of the year in Conference USA by Blue Ribbon Yearbook (the league doesn't name one in its preseason poll), scored 24 points at Oklahoma but needed 25 shots and seven free throw attempts to get there. He was 9 of 25 from the field, including 1 of 10 from the 3-point line, and 5 of 7 at the free-throw line. Wallace needed 16 field goal attempts and four free throw attempts to get to 17 points.
UTSA made just 5 of 29 3s at Oklahoma. The Roadrunners had 10 assists and 15 turnovers. The Salukis have big and long guards, but not necessarily physical guards like Sean Lloyd and Armon Fletcher. Cook should have been on the Missouri Valley Conference's All-Defensive Team last season and will be a problem for Jackson and Wallace. McGill is a great defender when he doesn't gamble. Mullins can certainly teach defense. If the Salukis make UTSAs best players work for their points, they'll be in good shape, but if they give up the same open 3s they did Tuesday night, the Roadrunners will not go 5 of 29 again.
UTSA may be the best team in the Sunshine Slam, and SIU is lucky (I guess) enough to get it first.