COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Southern Illinois plays defense with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The Salukis attack teams with their stifling man-to-man pressure and then take their chances at the other end, wearing teams down until they make a critical mistake down the stretch.
“It’s kind of like, I guess, the equivalent of smash-mouth football,” said Virginia Tech’s Coleman Collins, whose team meets the Salukis on Sunday in an NCAA West Regional second-round game. “You know what they’re going to do but they’re going to do it every time and do it well. It’s just on you to stop it.”
The fifth-seeded Hokies (22-11) have already learned that lesson. The teams met in the championship of a tournament in Orlando last November. The Salukis won 69-64 in what for them is a shootout—ranked third in the nation in defense, they only allow 56.3 points a game.
Jamaal Tatum, who hit a 3 with 26 seconds left in that win, believes the earlier meeting is meaningless.
“The whole team needs to understand that this is a completely different Virginia Tech team,” he said.
Coach Chris Lowery feels the same way.
“I don’t remember that game,” the third-year coach of the Salukis said. “I mean, it’s three months ago.”
That doesn’t mean others have forgotten so easily.
“We’re looking forward to this game to kind of get some retribution for the loss because we felt like we had it down the stretch and they hit a couple of big shots in the last minute that put them over the edge,” Collins said. “We felt like we were right there.”
The Hokies wilted down the stretch in Florida, but overcame a 10-point deficit with less than 4 1/2 minutes left to stun Illinois 54-52 in a rugged first-round game on Friday.
“It’s definitely hard to believe that we won that game,” guard Zabian Dowdell said.
Deron Washington hit the clincher, an awkward-looking bank shot with 45.5 seconds left.
Washington was thrilled to end up as a highlight staple during March Madness.
“It was pretty exciting,” the 6-foot-7 junior said. “In the past I’ve never done anything like that, throw up a shot at the end of the game. It was a pretty good experience. I’ve watched it a couple of times.”
Teammate Jamon Gordon blurted out, “You watched it all night long!”
One huge change from the first meeting is that 6-7 Matt Shaw, the third-leading scorer for the fourth-seeded Salukis (28-6) at 11.4 points a game, may not play. He led SIU with 17 points in the early season matchup, but sprained his left late in the first half of Friday’s 71-61 first-round win over Holy Cross.
Tony Boyle, who hasn’t started a game and averages less than 3.0 points a game, will get the call in Shaw’s place. However, all Boyle did in the tournament opener was score a career-high 14 points, all in the second half.
Neither roster is chock full of guys on their way to landing big NBA contracts. Both coaches favor gritty, hands-on defense. They are the teams no one wants to play.
“The game’s probably going to be ugly,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “If you thought the game (with Illinois) was ugly, this is going to be double ugly.”
The teams may have more in common than they care to admit. The Hokies know a little something about defense, too, limiting their opponents to just 42 percent shooting for the year.
Southern Illinois longs to be more than a team hidden in the shadows of the Big Ten. Virginia Tech is known for its football, and hasn’t won two games in an NCAA tournament in 40 years.
Both teams enter with something to prove.
“One of these two teams is going to the Sweet 16,” Greenberg said. “Once you’ve got a little taste, it’s like everything else—you want more. This tournament, it can become addictive. I think our guys want to stick around as long as they can.”