Southern Illinois has gained national prominence for its consistency within the Missouri Valley Conference. Facing higher expectations that come with their highest seed in school history, the Salukis play a dangerous first-round NCAA tournament opponent in Holy Cross on Friday in a West Regional matchup.
The fourth-seeded Salukis (27-6) are making their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, but have won just three games the previous five years. Two of those victories came in 2002, when Southern Illinois made the regional semifinals as a No. 11 seed, while the other came in 2005 as a No. 7 seed.
“My first year (2005), we were the favored, and I think we handled that very well. But this year, it’s a little bit different,” said coach Chris Lowery, who has compiled a 76-25 record with the Salukis. “We’ve been ranked, we’ve had a higher RPI, we’ve had a little more national notoriety, and the pressure will be a lot greater knowing that we are a four seed. Hopefully, we can make sure our kids stay competitive and stay focused.”
Southern Illinois won the MVC regular-season title but settled for an at-large bid into the field of 65 after losing to Creighton in the tournament championship game. The Salukis returned all five starters this season, led by senior guard and MVC player of the year Jamaal Tatum, who averaged 15.0 points and shot 41.6 percent from 3-point range.
With a team that features the top eight players from the 2005-06 season back, Tatum feels his squad’s maturity will go a long way toward showing the skeptics that the Salukis are worthy of the highest seed ever given to a Missouri Valley team.
“It’s a high expectation, but I think we can fill that expectation,” Tatum said. “I don’t think anybody feels pressured by it. We were predicted as a Sweet 16 team, so I think we have a high expectation for our self.”
Junior forwards Randal Falker (12.5 ppg) and Matt Shaw (11.7 ppg) also average in double figures for the Salukis, who have limited opponents to 56.5 points per game, good for third in the country and first among NCAA tournament teams.
Holy Cross (25-8), seeded 13th, is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, but the Patriot League regular-season co-champion and tournament winner earned a reputation as a difficult first-round out earlier this decade.
Despite being seeded no better than 14th in a three-year span from 2001-03, the Crusaders lost to Kentucky, Kansas and Marquette by a combined 19 points that included two four-point defeats.
“We’ve been in three NCAA tournaments and we had opportunities to win all three games,” Crusaders coach Ralph Willard said. “Defense will give us the opportunity to win against teams that are more athletic.”
The Crusaders rank ninth in scoring defense at 57.4 points per game, and like the Salukis, feature upperclassmen as their go-to players. Patriot League player of the year Keith Simmons and fellow senior guard Torey Thomas are Holy Cross’ top offensive options, averaging 17.3 and 13.6 points, respectively.
The duo has combined for 99 3-pointers, with Thomas making 41 percent (48-for-117) of his shots from beyond the arc.
Thomas scored a season-high 28 points and Simmons added 23 as the Crusaders held off Bucknell to win the Patriot League tournament for the first time since their 2003 appearance and fourth under Willard.
Holy Cross does not have much depth, with four starters averaging at least 28 minutes. Thomas averages a team-high 37.5 minutes, while Simmons logs 35.5 per game. Sophomore guard Pat Doherty is the key reserve, averaging 24.2 minutes and 5.3 points.
This is the first meeting between these schools. The winner of this game will play fifth-seeded Virginia Tech or No. 12 seed Illinois, which is led by former Salukis coach Bruce Weber, in the second round on Sunday.