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It's a battle for a share of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference today, when Valparaiso visits SIU Arena. 

The Crusaders (10-6, 3-0 MVC) are a game ahead of the Salukis (9-7, 2-1) and three other teams heading into today's 3 p.m. tipoff. SIU is 4-3 at home this season, but 1-0 at home in league play after beating Missouri State without guard Armon Fletcher or senior forward Thik Bol. Bol will miss another game with a badly-sprained ankle, but Fletcher returned from a six-game suspension at Drake Tuesday night.

Here are three things to watch in today's game: 

No. 1 — The opening 10 minutes

SIU has lost three games in the opening 10 minutes - at Drake Tuesday night, at No. 14 Buffalo and at home against Murray State - so the beginning will be important to the Salukis. Without Bol, they're playing short-handed, and they haven't come back from very many double-digit deficits this season. 

Valparaiso has won four straight games, and was able to throttle Bradley even without leading scorer Ryan Fazekas, who sprained his ankle early in the game. SIU coach Barry Hinson said his team's chances today depend on its defensive effort. 

"You have to have great field goal percentage defense. You just have to, and there's no excuse in how we guarded in the first half (Tuesday)," Hinson said. "Now, I don't want to take anything away from Drake, because they made great shots. They were on fire, and we panicked in the first half."

No. 2 — Sorolla and Smits

Valparaiso's twin 7-footers, starter Derrik Smits and backup Jaume Sorolla, will present some problems for SIU, especially without Bol. 

Sorolla had six points and three rebounds in the win over Bradley and nine points and six boards against Missouri State. Smits had scored 10 points in three straight games before getting six against the Braves. Sorolla had a big game against the Salukis in Valparaiso, Indiana, last season, and if SIU tries to double team either one of them, the Crusaders can stroke it from the 3. Kavion Pippen will have to hurt Valpo at the other end, and the Salukis will have to match their 3s today to have a shot at winning a big home game. 

No. 3 — Saluki turnovers

SIU has given away almost as many games as it's lost this season with turnovers. There are a lot of factors that go into it, etc., shooting percentage, free-throw attempts, but the Salukis are 5-0 when they have 20 assists or more and 2-5 when they have more turnovers than assists. 

Against a good offense, as Valparaiso has, turnovers will loom large. The Salukis have to take care of the basketball better than the 13 turnovers they had at Drake, and be careful of drawing charges on the perimeter. 

Notes: Valparaiso is 4-0 since switching the lineup after the loss at Texas A&M Dec. 19, 2018. Bakari Evelyn and Deion Lavender have come off the bench in those four wins, with Markus Golder and point guard Daniel Sackey into the lineup. Coach Matt Lottich may have to shuffle the lineup again if Ryan Fazekas can't go today. Fazekas left the game against Bradley early with a sprained right ankle and is day-to-day. ... Valparaiso still scored 61 points without him. ... SIU has won eight of its last 10 home conference games. The Salukis were 7-2 at home last season against MVC opponents, and beat Missouri State in their league opener. After Tuesday's road trip to Illinois State, SIU will host three of its next four games. 

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On Twitter: @THefferman


Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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