Barry Hinson signed on at Southern Illinois with eyes wide open.
He knew the Salukis basketball program he took over last spring had slipped dramatically from the one that used to make life miserable for him when he coached at Missouri State.
And he also knew things might get worse before he could get things headed in the other direction.
“We're six years removed from a Sweet 16,” Hinson said. “Six years removed from going to the NCAA tournament six straight years. We knew what we were getting into.”
That doesn't make it any easier for Hinson to be going through a season like this one. The Salukis snapped a six-game losing skid in beating Wichita State on Tuesday but still stand just 2-10 in Missouri Valley play. Their overall record of 9-14 is a reflection of playing a nonconference schedule that was softer than a baby’s bottom.
Hinson has just one player taller than 6-foot-5 on a roster that is not blessed with an abundance of talent. A couple of players who might have provided some assistance this season left the program last spring. Hinson has had to deal with some academic issues he inherited from the previous regime, and he's had to sort through a variety of off-the-court issues.
“It's the most drama I've had in the collection of 32 years combined,” Hinson said. “You can take all 31 years I've coached prior to this, add up everything, and we couldn't even get close to what's happened this year.”
This has been the kind of season that might tempt other coaches to take a shortcut or two just to keep their sanity. Not Hinson. Standards are standards. He learned long ago that cutting corners is the quickest way a coach can paint himself into one.
Through it all, Hinson has mixed unflappable optimism with Oklahoma-rooted realism with a heaping helping of corn-pone humor. He told anyone who would listen from the start that his team wasn't very good, even when it was winning in November and December. He is saying the same thing now that the losing ways of January have started to seep into February.
He has championed the effort his undermanned and undersized team has put forth most of the season. That's why what happened in the final 12 minutes of Saturday's game against Illinois State so disappointed Hinson.
“We were down 12 with 12 to go, and we just absolutely snapped,” Hinson said. “My guys have done a good job of playing their tails off for me, but we just quit in that last 12 minutes in Normal.
“It was excruciating to watch.”
The next day at practice, Hinson reaffirmed to his players that he intends to give it his all until the final bounce of the ball this season. All that he asked is that they do the same.
“I told them we're going to do everything we can to win ballgames,” Hinson said. “They hired the wrong guy if they didn't think that was the way it was going to be. We are fragile at this point, but the head coach is not fragile. I'm just frustrated, and there's a big difference.”
Chances are Hinson won't get an opportunity to start making a difference in Carbondale until next season. He inherited a deck that was stacked against him but he's ready to start shuffling.
Hinson signed five players in the fall. He'll likely sign a couple of more in the spring. Only three of the 11 scholarship players that are seeing action this season are seniors.
“I'm looking at our board right now, and I would venture to say 80 to 90 percent of our squad will be brand new,” Hinson said. “We'll have a brand new team next year.
“And in all honesty, when we took this job, we felt like next year would literally be our first year. That's kind of what we expected. Now, does that make it any easier to go through this? Absolutely not.”
Despite the tough times, Hinson is never far removed from trying to drop a line to make light of the situation. One of the Salukis' remaining games is a Feb. 19 trip to Omaha to play Creighton, which put a 30-point pasting on Hinson's team on Jan. 27.
“I'm just trying to figure out some type of ailment I can get before we have to travel to Omaha,” Hinson said. “I've already informed my staff that I'm really starting to feel sick, and I may be in the hospital by the time we get to that game.”
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