Traveling Violations: A coach's coach
ST. LOUIS – Southern Illinois’ mascot – the Saluki – is an Egyptian hunting dog. That answers the most commonly asked question about this Missouri Valley powerhouse.
Now onto the second most popular query, can these guys actually, seriously be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament?
You can say this, the mere fact that Southern Illinois is being considered for such a seed is a reflection of the state of the game, the rise of mid-major programs (particularly this consistent winner) and, of course, the rash of recent losses from other contenders.
It also serves as a challenge to everything you ever learned about college hoops.
SIU is ranked 11th in both polls and No. 5 in the RPI. After handling Drake 71-59 for its 12th consecutive victory here at the Valley quarterfinals Friday, the Salukis improved to 26-5. If they win out and take the league title – they match up with Bradley, a Sweet Sixteen team a year ago, Saturday in the semifinals – they likely will have nine victories against top 50 teams.
This isn’t some fluke team, either. This will be their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, a run that includes a Sweet Sixteen and one trip to the second round. Since 2001, they are the seventh winningest program in the country.
But still, a two seed? Out of the Valley? A two seed is, by definition, a serious contender to win the national title. Florida was a three seed last year.
“They need help from other teams losing, right now I have them as a three seed,” Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com said Friday. “But if other teams lose and they win out, it could happen.”
The fact this is even being mentioned is amazing because SIU lacks a string of major victories, a bunch of NBA-ready players or even an explosive, overpowering style of play.
SIU is just a nice, quiet, outrageously successful team. They have nothing to apologize for, but with just two good non-conference victories – Virginia Tech and Butler – they are more a product of plowing (16-3) through this highly competitive league thanks to their in-your-face defense than anything else.
The Valley is the sixth highest rated league thanks to a .731 non-conference winning percentage and a 10-4 mark against the Big East and Big Ten. Almost every team is good. The Valley’s best isn’t better than the Big Tens or Big Twelves, but its worst isn’t as bad either.
Consider Drake, which finished a mediocre 17-16, yet beat Iowa and Iowa State this season.
But it’s tough to sell SIU as the best of the good.
On the court, at least at first look, the Salukis don’t help their case. They have a bunch of smart, experienced guys that really know how to play the game – they had 16 assists on 23 field goals against Drake – but you don't leave raving about them unless you happen to appreciate weak side defense and moving without the ball.
There isn’t a NBA talent on the roster. There isn’t a game breaker or a big-time big guy. You can cook up all the numbers you want and this just doesn’t look like a two seed.
But, then again, George Mason didn’t look like a Final Four team, either.
And that’s kind of the new reality of college hoops these days. You can underestimate these guys at your own risk. Nevada and Butler could also be in line for strikingly high seeds on Selection Sunday, unheard of stuff just a few years ago.
“I think you can sense the media’s skepticism about leagues like the Valley,” said Tom Davis, the Drake coach who has been in the Big Ten, Big East and Pac 10. “You can sense that in the media nationwide so you’re going to sense that if you’re talking about the seeding of Southern Illinois.”
The Salukis as a two-seed would be a historic moment. It is exceedingly rare for a team from outside the major six football playing conferences to earn such a bid. Memphis was a one seed a year ago, but that program bears little resemblance to this one. Atlantic 10 members St. Joseph’s, Massachusetts and Temple have all been top seeds, but they all had at least one lottery pick on the roster.
The Valley has only had seven teams seeded eighth or higher since 1985, when the tourney expanded to 64 teams. Five years ago you would have penciled these guys in for a seven seed and no one would have protested.
Of course, SIU just keeps winning, which almost no one else does. Of the top 16 teams in the AP poll, 11 lost last week. North Carolina and Florida lost twice. Some of those losses were to other ranked teams, but still, at some point you run out of eight great teams.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Chris Lowery, the Salukis coach, said Friday. “We have to focus on what’s at hand and not allow ourselves to be panicked by a seed. If you do that, you get panicked, tightening up and worrying about where you’re going to be seeded instead of winning a game.”
Lowery is just 34 years old and as the brightest young coaching prospect in basketball he’s way too smart to start worrying about something he can’t control.
He’ll allow fans nationally to doubt SIU all they want. The stats, the recent success of Valley teams and the high-major feel of this tournament doesn’t matter. Only a deep run in March will make people believe a good team from a good league can truly be great, that George Mason was the future, not just a fleeting fluke.
“I tell (the players) all the time, we can be very special,” Lowry said. “(But) we need to be calm and cool at this point,”
He’s right, because no matter the seed, no matter the doubts, no matter the debate, we’ll find out soon enough whether these dogs can hunt.