When a college basketball team loses its seniors, winning conference games is anything but a sure bet. Fourth and fifth year players can be vital for a team’s success in intense pressure situations deep into the conference schedule.
However, sometimes the play of one player can bring out the abilities of his teammates and be a rallying cry despite a lack of experience.
Sometimes green underclassmen grow up through the course of the season and start to actualize their potential.
Southern Illinois finished the 2012-13 season as the last place team in the Missouri Valley Conference. On a team devoid of much depth or talent, then-junior Desmar Jackson and the seniors were among the few standout performers.
Last season, Jeff Early led the nation in rebounding for players under 6-foot-1 (7.2 RPG) and was the second leading scorer on the SIU squad at 13 PPG. He also led SIU in minutes on the court and snatched 76 offensive rebounds. Early was the battery of the Salukis, and his energy gave the team a unique dimension when he was playing well.
Fellow seniors T.J. Lindsay and Kendall Brown-Surles were the only perimeter threats for Southern Illinois last season. Brown-Surles led the team in total three-pointers made (39) and Lindsay led the team in three-point percentage (38). Lindsay also led the team in free throw percentage (90) and Brown-Surles led the team in total assists (71).
With seniors leading the team in a number of areas, coach Barry Hinson certainly had his hands full trying to replace them with youth.
The Salukis began this season 2-8 and lost three of their first four conference games. It appeared that current senior Jackson (19.1 PPG) was the only player on the SIU roster ready for the challenges of Division-I basketball. Southern’s season was headed towards the gutter as it seemed destined to follow the path of last year’s disappointing conclusion.
Hinson did a plethora of things to remedy his team’s affliction of losing, including a viral-rant in which he called his players “mama’s boys.” Even the weather was against a team already lacking leadership and experience. The Salukis were snowed-in on the side of the road after a loss against Illinois State.
But the Salukis are resilient — like Hinson who bounced back from the backlash of the rant. The team is now 8-8 in the MVC and are tied for third in the conference standings. Jackson has had help from Anthony Beane in the scoring department, and freshman Bola Olaniyan has been a beast on the boards. Freshmen Sean O’Brien and Tyler Smithpeters have also become key contributors in the last month. Smithpeters is the best outside shooter on the team, and O’Brien gives SIU defensive length in the post.
Southern isn’t the most talented team in the MVC, but it looks poised and is growing up very quickly as a unit.