The Missouri Valley Conference is undeniably down this season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t danger lurking around any corner, especially on the road.
A traditional danger spot for Indiana State has been Southern Illinois. No matter whether the Salukis were up or down, ISU has never consistently won there. The Sycamores’ 7-38 all-time record in Carbondale, Ill., is a testament to the Sycamores’ futility.
Combine that with SIU coach Barry Hinson, who has had seemingly a supernatural mastery over ISU in his time at SIU and Missouri State, and it’s quick to understand that despite SIU’s struggles this season, ISU’s 8 p.m. tipoff at SIU Arena is no gimmie.
ISU last won at SIU in 2011 and suffered losses against inferior Salukis’ teams there in the previous two seasons. The Sycamores were also fortunate to win 66-65 at Hulman Center last February.
“We have a lot of respect for them. They battled us hard in both places and they got us down there. It’s a battle every time we play them,” ISU forward Justin Gant said.
Hinson has been completely dominant against ISU. No ISU team has beaten a Hinson-coached team on the road in 11 tries. ISU’s all-time record against Hinson is 5-18.
“He’s a great coach and that’s what happens when you get in the league. Everyone is so well-prepared and everyone has a good gameplan. It’s about who can assert their will a little bit better. We haven’t played particularly well down there and we’ll have to do better,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Though history is on SIU and Hinson’s sides, the programs are at opposite ends of the spectrum at present. ISU (16-4, 7-1) has won 14 of 16 games and its 16-4 record is its best at this point in the season since 1979. ISU has won seven road games this season, tied for the third-best total in the NCAA.
SIU (6-15, 2-6) shares last-place in the MVC with Drake. The Salukis have lost four of their last five overall and have lost three MVC home games at SIU Arena.
Levity aside, there have been rays of light for SIU. SIU’s last four losses were by six points or less. Is the corner soon to be turned?
“Are we close? We seem to be close at times. We’re struggling to find that one person on the floor who will open up his mouth and communicate to guys on the floor. We’re in dire need of a leader and we just don’t have a vocal leader,” Hinson said. “I wish we could text on the floor. If we could text on the floor, we’d be a helluva basketball team.”
Swingman Desmar Jackson is the Salukis’ meal ticket. The senior has averaged 20 points per game and was big trouble for the Sycamores last season. In two games, Jackson averaged 22.5 points. He also scored 17 against ISU when he was at Wyoming in the 2010-11 season in an 81-51 ISU loss in Laramie, Wyo.
“He’s beaten us himself in the past. He’s awfully talented. He’s not a selfish guy. He’ll give it up and make the right play,” Lansing said.
SIU also got a stellar performance from guard Tyler Smithpeters in a 69-63 loss at Missouri State last Saturday. Smithpeters made 4 of 7 from 3-point range for 16 points. He also had five assists.
SIU has to defend too of course. The Salukis are painfully aware how difficult ISU can be to defend, especially if the Sycamores are hitting their outside shots, as they did at a 52 percent clip from 3-point range in a 76-62 win over Illinois State last Saturday.
“Normally in a scouting report during practice, we put orange jerseys on the guys we highlight that can score. It was really comforting knowing that all five guys had orange jerseys on,” Hinson said. “They’re very good at first-shot percentages. They cause problems with their shooting, but it’s not just that. They shot-fake, they lead the league in assists. Greg’s done a great job with them.”
Lansing said that ISU had two good practices before it departed for SIU on Tuesday. Most feel the offensive-defensive balance the Sycamores have wanted to calibrate since the season began is getting closer to realization.
“We’ve done really well offensively all season, but we struggled defensively early in the season. We’ve been working on defense so much during practices. I think it’s starting to show in the game. Now we have to be more consistent about it,” Gant said.
ISU guard Devonte Brown, who suffered a hip injury in a violent fall against Illinois State last Saturday, practiced this week and is expected to play tonight.