Having clinched the top seed in the upcoming Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Southern Illinois can earn the outright regular-season crown Wednesday night when it visits Indiana State.
The No. 13 Salukis (23-5, 13-3) are sporting their highest ranking in school history and have won a season-high nine straight games. They earned the No. 1 seed when second-place Creighton lost 65-55 at Illinois State on Tuesday.
“It’s been a very exciting time for us and our fans,” said Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery about the ranking. “It’s just special. This just doesn’t happen to everybody. I think that these kids are playing on a high level now. (The media) have to be really considering this a high-major program.”
Southern Illinois, which has reached five straight NCAA tournaments, is hoping this trip to the Hoosier state goes just like its one on Saturday, when the Salukis posted a 68-64 victory at then-No. 13 Butler.
Leading scorer Jamaal Tatum had 20 points and helped limit Bulldogs’ top scorer A.J. Graves to five on 1-of-8 shooting. Southern Illinois held Butler to just under 41 percent shooting.
“We don’t set out to stop one person, we try to guard everybody,” Lowery said. “They seem to know who’s who, and sometimes we handle some players better than others.”
Tatum was named MVC player of the week after also scoring 16 points in a 51-47 victory at third-place Missouri State last Tuesday. He scored 12 points in the final five minutes Saturday.
Southern Illinois overcame a poor effort from Randal Falker, who missed all four shots and had just five points. Falker had one of his best games of the season with 19 points and 14 rebounds in the first meeting with Indiana State (12-15, 5-11), a 61-48 home victory on Jan. 31.
The Salukis held the Sycamores to just five first-half baskets in building a 35-19 lead. They did an outstanding job defending Sycamores leading scorer Gabriel Moore, who finished with six points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Southern Illinois, which won 11 straight last season from Dec. 30-Jan. 14, has posted six straight victories at Indiana State.
Moore has had his share of problems against the MVC. He’s averaging 16.4 points in non-conference action, but is struggling to score just 9.2 points per game in conference games.
Indiana State appeared to be a team on the rise in December, winning big non-conference games against Butler and Purdue. The Sycamores, however, have plummeted to 11 losses in their last 12 games, including a 70-58 loss to Miami of Ohio on Saturday.
Moore scored a team-high 15 points for the Sycamores, who shot 38.0 percent. Indiana State is the worst shooting team in the MVC at 40.3 percent.