Archive for Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Southern Illinois keeps clearing hurdles

March 21, 2007

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— It's really an extraordinary tale if you think about it: a program without a big name, with minimal tradition to speak of and three coaching changes in the last five years. Still, Southern Illinois University manages to keep on winning with college basketball's big boys.

How exactly do the Salukis do it?

"SIU is a defensive-minded team, and that's the biggest reason why we're always good," senior guard Tony Young said. "We don't mind playing defense and doing all those small things to win games."

The Salukis (29-6) face their biggest challenge in their NCAA Tournament history this week, hoping to, improbably, advance to the doorstep of the Final Four. Fourth-seeded Southern Illinois and top-seeded Kansas University will play at 6:10 p.m. Thursday at the HP Pavilion in the NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinal.

SIU has never played a top-seeded team, and never has gone further in the NCAA Tournament than it is now.

But what's another hurdle to clear, considering all that already has been conquered? Take Young and Jamaal Tatum, SIU's senior leaders. They were recruited out of high school by coach Bruce Weber, played their freshman year under coach Matt Painter and then were torn down and rebuilt by head coach Chris Lowery the last three seasons.

It's enough changing to drive a player mad - or at least drive him toward a transfer. But instead, the Salukis kept on keepin' on.

Coaching promotions took Weber to Illinois and Painter to Purdue. But back in Carbondale, Ill., Tatum, Young and the Salukis have outlasted both of them in this NCAA Tournament.

Here's the key: Painter and Lowery were both assistants under Weber when the Salukis began their current string of six consecutive NCAA Tournaments, five as at-large berths. Though Lowery left to join Weber at Illinois in 2003 when Painter became SIU's head coach, Southern Illinois' last three coaches all have close Saluki ties.

"We kept it in the family," said Lowery, a former SIU player, "and that's why the program continues to grow."

Not that it was a seamless transition, particularly from Painter to Lowery in 2004.

"When he first came in I was like, "Yes, we get coach Lowery, the coach that recruited me,'" Tatum said. "I was very happy about it.

"Then the first day of workouts, I wasn't too happy about it anymore."

That's because Lowery was agonizingly tough on his new squad, particularly Tatum and Young - who Lowery saw as the future of the program when they were both sophomores.

"I wanted to set in stone how I wanted things to be done on a daily basis," Lowery said, "and they didn't like it."

Southern Illinois kept winning through the rebuilding. After a 25-5 season in Painter's only year in charge (when Young and Tatum were freshmen), the Salukis were 27-8 in 2004-05 and 22-11 in 2005-06.

Now, with Lowery's chosen ones starting as seniors, the Salukis have a school-record 29 victories heading into the Kansas game. Tatum averages a team-high 15.1 points per game, while Young averages 9.8 points.

"He's learned to relax a little more," Young said of Lowery. "When he first came in, he was nervous about getting the program going and getting headed in the right direction the way he wanted it. But after he saw that we were all on the same page, he got everybody to buy into his system and the way he wanted to play.

"I think since he's been here, he's learned to relax a lot more and trust in his players, and it's worked out better for all of us."

Southern Illinois (29-6) topped Holy Cross and Virginia Tech in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament to set up Thursday's Sweet 16 showdown.

Each victory - particularly in the postseason - does plenty for reputation. But like anyone striving for greatness, satisfaction always stays one step ahead.

Even at a Missouri Valley Conference school already defying the odds and keeping up with the powers.

"I think that there's plenty more respect to come," Tatum said. "I think we can make a big run still. We're a great team and we have the type of players to take it to another level.

"We're not going to surprise ourselves. We have high expectations."

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