The Salukis are going through a bit of a phase, you could say. For seven years SIU was the premier program in the Missouri Valley Conference, going to six straight NCAA tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2007.
The program hit a bit of a bump last season when it went 18-15 and finished third in the MVC.
The carried-over concern from last season was how the Salukis struggled to score. This season they were without their top two scorers from last season, so there was some worry. In its first three games the SIU offense has bogged down some, going through some stretches where they can't put the ball in the basket.
Senior point guard Bryan Mullins (6-1, 185) is considered one of the best returning players in the MVC. He's the team's leader, a very good defender and doesn't make many mistakes. He averaged 10 points per game last season and they wanted him to step up and score more this season, which he hasn't done – averaging just 9 points per game. He's just not attempting to score enough, according to people who know the program, especially since he's shooting 44% from three.
The Saluki faithful has been happy with the emergence of sophomore forward Carlton Fay (6-8, 235), who looks like, in SIU's first three games, their best player. Fay scored 17 against Duke, both inside and outside, hitting two threes, while also leading the team in rebounding (6 per game).
Freshman Kevin Dillard (5-11, 160) is the point guard of the future who is starting alongside Mullins, and he's done pretty well stepping into a starting spot as a freshman. He, also, is shooting very well from beyond the arc, making 42% of his three-point attempts. SIU fans think that the Salukis have the best two point guards in their history on the same team at the same time.
Senior Tony Boyle (6-8, 230) is the true post in the starting five, a guy who has earned a rep as a hard-nose banger, but he's playing limited minutes, mostly because the Salukis have gone quicker at times and Boyle is prone to foul trouble. When he can stay in the game he's actually a decent low-post scoring threat.
Senior Wesley Clemmons (6-3, 195) is a role player, and a solid defender.
The Salukis are dealing with a bit of the same issues UCLA is – many young, inexperienced players. Head Coach Chris Lowery brought in six freshmen, which he says is his most talented recruiting class. Besides Dillard, there's Nick Evans (6-11, 250), who has flashed some nice inside scoring ability, and has taken some minutes away from Boyle. Anthony Booker (6-8, 220) might have been the most hyped recruit, and was expected to compete for a starting position, but it hasn't materialized. He's a good athlete and strong rebounder. Justin Bocot (6-3, 175) andRyan Hare (6-4, 200) are coming off the bench on the wing, and Bocot is giving them another outside scoring option.
Against Duke, the Salukis hung in for the first half, and then collapsed in the second. SIU has been known for its defense in recent years, which slipped a bit last season, and it definitely lapsed in the second half against Duke. The youngish team looked like they couldn't sustain defensive effort against the Dukies, and then got lazy and careless, committing 47 fouls. Evans fouled out with about 8 minutes left in the game and Boyle left with about seven minutes remaining.
In other words, UCLA is going to have to be able to make its free throws.
The Salukis are very physical, and hopefully Ben Howland will have as much effect on the referees as Duke's Mike Krzyzewski did. He continued to complain about how SIU was bumping and grabbing his players, and in the second half the Blue Devils went to the line 19 times. For the game they shot a total of 47 free throws.
Duke made 85% of them and that was clearly the difference. Duke out-scored the Salukis 40-12 at the free-throw line.
It will be somewhat of a relief for UCLA, not to have to face Michigan's funky 1-3-1 defense, but expect SIU to swarm the ball and play very aggressively on defense, and, after watching UCLA's performance at the free-throw line, not hesitate to send the Bruins to the line.
It should be a close – and probably pretty sloppy – game, with so many freshmen from both teams getting significant time. Expect to see UCLA freshman center J'mison Morgan in this one, since he matches up physically better against some of the Saluki's frontcourt players, in particular Evans.
The game should be a physical, defensive battle, with both offenses probably struggling to score.
Southern Illinois 58