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Sports Column | Todd Hefferman: Saluki basketball team will be hard to knock out

Sports Column | Todd Hefferman: Saluki basketball team will be hard to knock out

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It wasn't pretty after Sunday's loss to Oakland.

SIU's men's basketball team beat UTSA, which I thought was the best team in the Sunshine Slam field, Friday night convincingly in Kissimmee, Florida. With a chance to win its first multi-team event in several years, the Salukis fought Delaware to the end with a depleted roster before falling 56-54 on Saturday. Oakland led by double digits early in the second half before SIU got within five off a Trent Brown 3-pointer, but ultimately couldn't guard inside and couldn't put a couple of baskets together well enough to make Oakland worry about the outcome.

The Golden Grizzlies won 61-52 to end the three-day event 2-1. SIU left Florida 1-2, 2-2 overall, and feeling a little deflated after two games it felt it could have won but simply couldn't.

"We have the ability to be very good. If we want to be good, we have to be on top of everything," said graduate transfer center Barret Benson, one of the Salukis who have the most invested in this 2019-20 season. "The little things will be important for how this season goes for us. You saw in that Texas-San Antonio game, we jumped on 'em from the start. They had a run in that second half, too, and we matched it. We adjusted, and we finished that game out. Delaware, we came out slow, and we had a run in the second half. We weren't able to finish it out but we came back and showed some fight. (Sunday), a lot of physicality. That's what they're known for, big guys, and that's something we gotta learn from."

SIU needs its big guns back, and I'm not talking about offense. Eric McGill missing the last four minutes of the Delaware game hurt, and he didn't seem like himself in the first half against Oakland, either. His offense and defense were missed in the Salukis' losses there, but getting Ronnie Suggs back on defense will be a big lift. The 6-foot-6 guard, who is 205 pounds, is long and menacing out on the perimeter.

Suggs, by himself, will not win a ton of 1-on-1 drills against opposing players. But if you put him with the 6-2 McGill and 6-2 Aaron Cook, who is leading the Missouri Valley Conference in steals, and 6-4 Harwin Francois, now you've got a pretty good defensive four. Benson won't block a ton of shots this season, but he'll be able to hold his own rebounding. If he can be a bit more physical staying in front of opposing posts, and help SIU deny easy passes there, he'll make an even bigger impact. Freshman forward Marcus Domask has proven he can play at this level, at both ends, and may start a few games at the 5 spots if SIU plays some smaller teams.

The big takeaway from this past weekend was not only how great the weather is in Florida in November, but that this team has a lot of toughness. Under Barry Hinson, even with his most talented squads, you never really knew if they were going to play their best when it mattered. Three of the biggest blowouts in Saluki history, and I'm referring to blowouts as far as SIU getting outclassed, came during Hinson's tenure. The 42-point blowout at Wichita State in 2017, a 42-point loss at nationally-ranked Louisville in 2017, and a 36-point defeat at Illinois State. This year's team just seems to be good enough, defensively, and tough enough, to stay in a lot of games where it might not have the offensive firepower. 

TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman. 

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