But Vanderbilt has played each of the first three games at home. Now the Commodores face what should be a crucial test, playing a good team on the road, although in a neutral location. Southern Illinois, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, had a record of 25-5 last season, including a remarkable 17-1 in conference play. They were upset in the conference tournament but went to the "big dance" through an at-large bid, where they faced Alabama in the first round and lost 65-64 to an eventual elite eight opponent.
The campus of Southern Illinois, located in Carbondale, near St. Louis, is not far from Nashville, but Vanderbilt has played the Salukis only once in men's basketball. On December 7, 1974, the Commodores won 79-72 in the final game of the Vanderbilt Invitational tournament. Jeff Fosnes had a 26-point, 11-rebound performance that night.
Southern Illinois has had three head coaches in as many years. Last season, the Salukis were guided by Matt Painter, who had just replaced the highly successful Bruce Weber. (Painter quickly moved on to Purdue to serve a one-year apprenticeship under Gene Keady before taking over before the 2005-06 season.) Chris Lowery, who succeeded Painter, most recently served three years under Weber at Southern Illinois and Illinois. He is just 32 years old and played point guard for SIU from 1990-94. He was an assistant coach at Rend Lake Community College, Missouri Southern State College, and Southeast Missouri State University, before joining Weber's staff. This is his first year as a head coach anywhere at the collegiate level.
The Salukis won their first two games this season, both at home in Las Vegas Invitational games, defeating Augustana 83-59, and then Tennessee State 83-60. Their win over Tennessee State was, if anything, easier than Vanderbilt's 87-65 victory over the same team. They will press and put a lot of defensive pressure on the Commodores, rotating ten players, and have the quickness and depth to do the job well.
Southern Illinois's leading player is 6-3 senior Darren Brooks, the point guard. He is an outstanding defender who averaged 16.5 ppg and 5.7 rebounds last season. He literally does it all, but he does have a lot of help from 6-0 sophomore Tony Young (3.8 ppg), who can come in and play the point. Young is also a very good defender.
The other starting guard is usually 6-3 senior Stetson Hairston. Along with 6-5 sophomore Mike Dale, Hairston was suspended for the first game this season because of an off-campus fight. He returned in the Tennessee State game, although he didn't start, and scored ten points. Hairston is an all-league defender who has started since he was a freshman, and averaged 9.1 ppg and 4.2 rebounds last season.
Other guards are Dale (who didn't play last season because of academic ineligibility), 6-2 sophomore Jamaal Tatum, 6-3 junior Kyle Smithpeters, and 6-1 sophomore C.J. Smith. Tatum (7.8 ppg last season) has been starting in place of Hairston and led the team in scoring against Tennessee State with 17 points. He is the best three-point shooter on the team, and Dale is next best. Southern Illinois is very strong at the guard positions, may start three of them (Brooks, Hairston, and Tatum).
SIU mostly relies on players 6-5 to 6-8 to man the positions underneath. Two capable seniors, 6-5 senior LaMar Owen and 6-8 Josh Warren, are starters. Both of them saw plenty of action last year, Owen averaging 8.4 ppg and 4.3 rebounds, and Warren 4.3 ppg and 3.8 rebounds. Three freshmen, Randal Falker and Matt Shaw (both 6-7), and 6-10 Jamaal Foster, complete the cast. Falker scored 23 points in the first two games and Shaw fired in 20.
In summary, Southern Illinois can not come close to matching Vanderbilt's size and heft (although Warren weighs 265 lbs), but they are a tough defensive team with a lot of quickness and experience. Also, the Salukis will be a tough test for Vanderbilt's defenders, with their good ball-handling and cuts to the basket.
The keys to a Vanderbilt victory will be the team's ability to handle SIU's defensive pressure and to make their own size count on the backboards. They can't expect an indefinite continuation of the three-point shooting success they have had in their last two games (54 shots taken, 27 made). They were outrebounded by both Tennessee State and CSN and must do better in that area. The key defensive matchup will be Jason Holwerda on Darren Brooks.
This will be the first close game of the season. Vanderbilt is predicted here to edge out Southern Illinois by three to five points after a tough struggle.