The Salukis went into their New Year’s Day game against Illinois State as losers of their last four, fresh off a 78-60 throttling from Evansville to kick off the Missouri Valley Conference season.
The combined records of the teams beat by the Salukis before Sunday? 3-32.
But then the Salukis (4-9, 1-1 MVC) defeated a good Illinois State (9-3, 1-1 MVC) team rather easily by a score of 86-71, and every indication of how the season will unfold has gone out the window.
“Their record is the most irrelevant record in the United States,” Illinois State head coach Tim Jankovich said of the Salukis. “They had a lot of guys out, so the team that they play with now did not have that record. The team they have now is far better than the team they were playing with a month ago.”
Before we get overly optimistic about just one game, let’s put it in perspective. SIU and Illinois State shared two opponents in their non-conference slate: Chicago State and SIUE. Both the Salukis and Illinois State took care of those creampuffs, but the margin of victory wasn’t even close. Illinois State won by a combined 78 points, whereas the Salukis only won by 39 combined points.
But this kind of performance shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. The Salukis showed signs of progress in losses to Clemson and No. 15 Xavier during the Diamond Head Classic, but the Dec. 29 loss to Evansville killed any momentum the Salukis had coming back from Hawaii.
“We had a terrible performance at Evansville, and everyone was down on themselves,” junior guard T.J. Lindsay said. “Our record will probably make you underestimate us, but we’re a better team than what it shows.”
But with junior guard Kendal Brown-Surles and sophomore forward Davante Drinkard back in the fold after they returned Dec. 17 against Northern Illinois, this team looks far different than it did in the first six games.
“Now we have everybody in practice every single day, which is great for us,” head coach Chris Lowery said. “Now we have quick games, so there’s not really much time to gel … We’re just going to try and play at a high level and just move forward and hope the guys we got back will get it pretty quick.”
Brown-Surles instantly improved the Salukis’ horrific shooting while taking the pressure off freshman guard Josh Swan, who won’t have to worry about playing the point with Brown-Surles and junior Kourtney Goff anchoring that position.
“I have the most experience at that spot here (at SIU), so that always helps because it’s easier to get others in the flow of the game,” Brown-Surles said.
“But with our guard play, anybody can bring the ball upcourt. It’s all about leadership and being more vocal.”
Drinkard provides the physical presence upfront that freshman forwards Treg Setty and Antonio Bryer couldn’t. Lowery needed to realize that before the season started, because now Drinkard sat out those first six games for no reason.
But Brown-Surles and Drinkard weren’t the only players SIU welcomed back during the break. Senior guard Justin Bocot returned to the court after no charges were filed in the police investigation of him.
The only problem was that when Bocot returned, his shot selection was horrific. Bocot didn’t even see the court against Illinois State because Lowery said the younger guys have played better.
“We wanted to give the younger guys a chance because he struggled,” Lowery said. “If we win, it doesn’t matter. In any program, if guys take your spot, you talk about the winning side of it and not the losing side.”
Goff has worked his way into the starting lineup five times, although he’s battled illness since the Hawaii trip. Lindsay lit it up from behind the arc Sunday, hitting 6-7 from three-point range. Swan also had a pretty good night with a career-high 15 points and seven rebounds in the win.
But the most positive sign was from Setty, who scored a career-high 20 points Sunday while finally hitting a shot from behind the arc for the first time all season. He finished the game 2-4 from three- point range.
“I’ve had dreams about knocking down a three at the SIU Arena for the first time and wondering if that was ever going to happen,” Setty said. “That was supposed to be my thing coming in, but I wasn’t hitting any shots.”
Setty struggled early in the season, but now that Drinkard is back, Setty can focus on stretching the floor with his shooting and size instead of posting up on players that are much more physical than he is.
But if this team wants success in the long run, Lowery needs to settle on a starting lineup. Sure, injuries, suspensions and even a police investigation rattled things a bit, but show me 10 different starting lineups in 12 games and I’ll show you a team in trouble.