Despite six straight NCAA tournament appearances and earning its first preseason ranking, Southern Illinois still feels it has something to prove.
The No. 23 Salukis will finally have a chance to start doing so Saturday when they open their season at home against Northern Illinois.
Southern Illinois returns three starters from last season’s 29-7 team that set a school record for wins and reached the NCAA tournament’s regional semifinals for the first time since 2002. That was enough for the Salukis to earn the No. 24 ranking in the preseason Top 25, and they moved up a spot after Southern California and Kentucky dropped out after being upset in the season’s first week.
Though the Salukis are the unanimous favorite to win their sixth Missouri Valley Conference regular season title in seven years, they are still searching for respect.
“I think most people in this country are in the mode of `Do it again,’” SIU coach Chris Lowery told the school’s official Web site.
“I think Southern Illinois and the Missouri Valley Conference have to do it again and again and again until we finally get the respect. Whether (people) choose to look at it or not, our success speaks for itself. We just have to continue to win games, because that is the only way you can win people over.”
The Salukis finished last season ranked 14th and could surpass that ranking this season behind preseason MVC player of the year Randal Falker, who averaged 12.3 points and 7.7 rebounds.
The 6-foot-7 senior along with 6-7 Matt Shaw, who averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds last season, give the Salukis a solid frontcourt.
Though the talented guard tandem of Tony Young and leading scorer Jamaal Tatum have moved on, point guard Bryan Mullins returns for his third season as a starter. He had 126 assists last season.
“Bryan’s experience at the point guard position is invaluable,” Lowery said. “We expect a lot out of him because he was such a role player in the past, but now he really has to step up and be our lead guard.”
Though the Salukis are capable of being a good offensive team, their defense should again determine how far they will go.
Southern Illinois ranked third in nation in scoring defense last season, allowing an average of 56.2 points. It ranked fourth at 56.5 two seasons ago.
The Salukis look to win their ninth straight opener while trying to extend their overall home winning streak to 15 games Saturday.
They also will be looking for their ninth consecutive victory over Northern Illinois in the teams’ first meeting since the Salukis won 98-70 at home on Nov. 30, 1996.
Northern Illinois (0-3) lost 88-78 to Cal Poly on Sunday in the BTI Tipoff tournament in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“We made some strides, but we still need to get more consistent,” said first-year coach Ricardo Patton, who went 184-160 with two NCAA appearances in 11-plus seasons as Colorado coach. “We had enough opportunities, and I’ve found you lose more games by your own mistakes.”
Senior guard Ryan Paradise led the Huskies with 21 points. He is averaging 15.3 points and is the top returning scorer from last season’s 7-23 team.
The Huskies, who have not beaten SIU since a 62-61 win on Nov. 27, 1982, are shooting 39.2 percent from the field and have turned the ball over 58 times through three games.
Northern Illinois looks to avoid its 17th straight loss to a ranked team dating to a 95-86 win over then-No. 19 Oral Roberts on Feb. 3, 1973.