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SIU Men’s Basketball

SIU Men's Basketball | 3 Things to Watch: Salukis finally get homecourt advantage

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SIU head coach Bryan Mullins talks to his players during the first half against Grambling State at the Banterra Center on Dec. 28 in Carbondale.

Home, sweet home.

When the SIU men welcome Northern Iowa to Banterra Center Saturday night for a Missouri Valley Conference game, it will be the first time they’ve played a conference foe this year in front of a cheering crowd.

The Salukis (9-6, 2-1) played their first three MVC matchups on the road, edging Evansville and Valparaiso before falling 81-76 Wednesday night at Missouri State. They are 6-0 at home with five double-figure wins.

“We’re excited to be back home in front of our community and our students,” coach Bryan Mullins said Friday. “We’re going against a championship program in Northern Iowa, so it’s going to be a big challenge.”

The Panthers (8-7, 4-1) have won four straight conference games since a December overtime loss at Illinois State. That includes Tuesday night’s 80-74 overtime win at home against an Indiana State team that was down to seven healthy players due to COVID-19 protocol.

This is the first of three home games over five nights for SIU. It will take on Drake Monday night in a makeup game and then battle Indiana State on Wednesday night.

Here’s three things to watch for in the UNI clash:

1. Containing AJ Green

Most MVC teams seem to have a trained assassin at shooting guard who can light you up for 30 on any night. The Salukis lost at Missouri State Wednesday night because 6-5 Isiaih Mosley went off for 25 of his game-high 33 points in the second half.

Green is capable of doing the same thing. In fact, he countered Mosley’s career-high 43 points on Jan. 8 with 33 of his own as the Panthers nipped the Bears 85-84 in Springfield.

On the year, Green is averaging 17.5 ppg and sinking 35 percent of his 3-pointers, which translates to an effective shooting percentage of 52.5 from the arc. Foul him and it’s a cinch two points as he makes nearly 87 percent at the line.

But he’s not UNI’s only weapon. Forward Noah Carter and guard Nate Heise also average in double figures for a team that scores 75 ppg and cans 46.5 percent of its field goals.

“They are extremely talented offensively so they put you at a disadvantage a lot of times,” Mullins said. “This is an experienced team playing their best basketball.”

2. Disciplined defense

On Missouri State’s last possession of the first half Wednesday night, Ben Coupet, Jr. took a chance and tried to help off his man, hoping for a steal that might lead to a bucket and expand SIU’s one-point lead.

But Coupet missed swiping the ball away and it wound up in the hands of his man, Ja’Monta Black, a deadeye 3-point shooter. His corner 3 gave the Bears a 36-34 lead and highlighted the importance of every possession in a league where close games are the norm.

“Ben has done a good job for us throughout the year,” Mullins said. “But that one play shows that you have to be solid on defense. You can’t make consistent mistakes. In this league, you have to be focused on every possession.”

The same holds true against Northern Iowa, which shoots at an above-average rate in every category. If you gamble defensively and it backfires, the open shot you leave is probably going to go up on the scoreboard a moment or two later.

3. Unpacking the pack line

UNI coach Ben Jacobson is one of the most notable proponents of the “pack line” defense, which is designed to force opponents to settle for jumpers instead of being able to attain the lane through penetration.

At first glance, the Salukis seem like a team that should do well against the pack line. They are a jump-shooting team that’s made as many as 15 3-pointers in games this year. As a team, they are hitting 34 percent from 3, an acceptable percentage.

But shooting well from 3 isn’t just a matter of throwing the ball around the perimeter until it’s time to launch.

“Patience will be important,” Mullins said. “Changing sides and moving the ball will be important because they do such a good job of playing connected on defense. We have to do a good job of spacing as well.”

Although SIU lost at Missouri State Wednesday night, it wasn’t because of its offense. The Salukis went 14 of 29 from 3-point range and had just eight turnovers to 12 assists.

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