The word “dangerous” rarely, if ever, has been used this season to describe Southern Illinois’ basketball team.
Now might be a time to start.
It’s been a rough first season for coach Barry Hinson as he tries to turn around a program that has been trending downward for the past two or three seasons. The Salukis started Missouri Valley play having lost 10 of 11 league games to leave their overall record at 8-14 after their first game in February.
In its next four, Southern Illinois posted three wins and came within one point of picking up a fourth.
“This game is so much about confidence and swagger and having a belief in what you’re doing,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “They obviously have more belief now than at any point in the season.”
That adds a little intrigue to Creighton’s Tuesday meeting with the Salukis at the CenturyLink Center. Despite his team’s recent upturn, Hinson isn’t convinced Southern Illinois has reached a level where it can compete with the Valley’s elite teams.
But there’s no doubt the Salukis are in better shape than when they lost 81-51 to the Bluejays on Jan. 27 in Carbondale. Hinson knows it could have been much worse.
“We’re going to have to play a lot better than we did the last time,” Hinson said.
Southern Illinois has played better in its past four games — home victories over Wichita State, Evansville and Missouri State and a close loss at Indiana State. The Salukis have cleaned up several areas of play, particularly on the defensive end.
In losing six games from Jan. 15 to Feb. 2, Southern Illinois allowed an average of 70.3 points per game. The Salukis have held their past four opponents to an average of 59.5 points. They also outrebounded their opponents in two games and finished even in a third.
Southern Illinois also is finding ways to get to the free-throw line with regularity. The Salukis have shot 36 more free throws than their past four opponents, and that’s led to a 63-41 advantage in scoring from the line.
In the six-game skid, Southern Illinois’ opponents had outscored the Salukis 86-39 in free throws.
“They are definitely in attack mode,” McDermott said.
Part of playing better, Hinson said, is playing smarter.
“We’re taking better shots and not being as selfish as what we were earlier,” Hinson said. “We’re still very limited talent-wise, but that’s OK as long as they play hard and have a great attitude.
“That’s what we’ve asked of them, and they’ve done that for the most part.”
The recent improvement provides Hinson with what he calls a glance into the program’s future. The most encouraging sign is the fight his players are showing.
“It would have been so easy just to fold our tent and just keep getting beat,” Hinson said. “They didn’t do that.”
One reason the Salukis didn’t, Hinson said, is that he’s toned down some of his on-court demands. He still has the same no-tolerance policy he’s had since taking the job last spring in an attempt to turn around some of the off-the-court issues that were dogging the program.
“I met with the team about four weeks ago, and I told them I reserve the right to challenge them any time on their attitude and their effort,” Hinson said. “I told them that if they took care of those two things, I would be a lot easier to get along with.
“For the most part, they’ve done a really good job of doing that.”
While Southern Illinois hopes to keep building momentum for the future, Creighton is more concerned about the present. The Bluejays trail Wichita State by a game in the race for the Valley’s regular-season championship.
Creighton snapped a three-game skid with Saturday’s 71-68 win at Evansville. The Bluejays demonstrated plenty of fight of their own in that win, rallying from a 16-point deficit.
“We showed a lot of toughness,” forward Doug McDermott said. “We have to continue to do that in order to get where we want to go.”
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