The two teams will battle in a Sweet 16 matchup at 6:10 p.m. (CST) on Thursday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.
This game features two of the winningest programs in recent years. SIU ranks eighth nationally in wins (155) since the 2001-02 season, while KU is fifth with 158 victories. While the Salukis are making their third appearance in the Sweet 16, the school has never been to an Elite Eight.
And Bill Self’s Jayhawks don’t plan to let SIU make history on Thursday. They’ll be plenty fired up come tipoff.
“This is the NCAA tournament,” said junior guard Russell Robinson. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, what conference, how big their name is. We want to win every game. I think we’re going to come out with enough energy to do that. Doesn’t matter if it’s SIU or Duke, I think we’re just going to come out and play hard.”
Both teams head into their matchup on a roll. No. 1 seed KU (32-4) has won 13 straight games and ran past Niagara and Kentucky in the first two rounds. No. 4 seed SIU (29-6), meanwhile, has won 15 of its last 16 games and is coming off victories over Holy Cross and Virginia Tech in the Big Dance.
Southern Illinois, which has won the most games in school history and is making its sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance, boasts impressive talent and a strong defense. The Salukis are holding opponents to just 56.1 points per game — third best in the country.
SIU is led by Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Jamaal Tatum and Defensive Player of the Year Randal Falker. SIU coach Chris Lowery was also MVC Coach of the Year and is the youngest head coach in the NCAA Tournament at age 34.
Tatum, a 6-2 senior guard, leads the team in scoring with 15.1 points per game and shoots 44.2 percent from three-point land. He’s followed by Falker at 12.1 ppg. The 6-7 junior forward also averages 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.
“Tatum is as good as we played against this year,” Self said. “He and AC Law, as far as getting the shot on the zone. He's great at the end of the clock. He can make hard shots. He takes some hard shots, but he still shoots 42% from three. He's really a good guard. Plays the one or the two. Falker is kind of, from an activity standpoint, a (Dennis) Rodman or a (Renaldo) Balkman, the player from South Carolina. He's everywhere. He can slide his feet as well as any guard. He can switch out and guard a guard. He's got great length. He blocks shots. He's a fabulous athlete. He can obviously score.”
SIU could potentially be in trouble if its third-leadiing scorer (6-7 junior forward) Matt Shaw (11.3 ppg) is unable to play on Thursday. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the Salukis’ first-round victory over Holy Cross, and did not play in SIU’s last game vs. Virginia Tech. Southern Illinois had started the same five players the whole season until Shaw’s absence. Shaw is a vital part of the team’s success; the Salukis are 9-0 when he scores at least 15 points, and 15-0 when Shaw grabs at least six rebounds.
“Shaw practiced today and participated in a couple of shooting drills and three-man weave,” Lowery said at his press conference Thursday at the HP Pavilion. “He is still very ginger, but I assume he’s going to try and play. Obviously, as practice continues, we’ll be able to see more how he does, particularly laterally, but as of right now, he’s still day-to-day and will be a game time decision.”
“We have a system in place,” Lowery said. “I think that's how you teach 'em. There's high-scoring teams within our league that we've slowed down. Obviously they don't have the NBA lotteries that these guys have. You don't get coaxed because obviously we have older kids and they understand tempo, they understand what we're trying to do. I don't think we'll be tricked or forced into playing a way that we don't want to play unless we just totally lose our minds and go crazy, abandon what's made us successful.”
And SIU has been very successful this season. So what about that Rodney Dangerfield image?
“I think the true basketball fans recognize us,” Tatum said. “I mean, you have to. If you are up on basketball, college basketball, you have to notice us. I don't care if that's for how many games we won in the last few years or how long our home-winning streak has been in conference play, or what we are ranked nationally on defense. You have to notice some aspect about the Saluki basketball team.
“We've gotten exposure in all the NCAA tournaments. It wasn't good for us last year to go out and lose in the first round to West Virginia as bad as we did, but we made it there. This year we’ve come out and played hard, won some games. It's going to put us on a pedestal nationally. We have to keep on competing and playing hard to get that national exposure up even higher.”
Beating Kansas will definitely help. But these Jayhawks have had the bullseye on their backs all year. KU is used to the pressure. The ‘Hawks are now elevating their game when the stakes count the most.
“Expectations are high,” Robinson said. “I think everyone expects that when they get recruited here. You want to be in a position to do big things every single season. This year we have the personnel to do that. I think we want to go out and play to our potential. I think our potential is going all the way.”