- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

Like their canine namesakes, the Southern Illinois Salukis are known for hunting. The basketball version already has snared two NCAA tournament victories to reach the Sweet 16. Now Southern Illinois is after bigger game: top-seeded Kansas in the West Region semifinals tonight in San Jose, Calif.

In a typically mind-numbing performance, Southern Illinois (29-6) stamped out Virginia Tech’s explosive transition attack and used its deliberate offense to wear down the flustered Hokies in the second round Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

“The game was nice and slow,” Southern Illinois forward Randal Falker said after his team hit a season-high 12 3-pointers and held Virginia Tech to a season-low 48 points. “We like it like that. People say we are the slowest team in the league, but we just like to control the game tempo. We don’t like to give up anything too quick.”

Southern Illinois might not be a brand name in college basketball, but neither is it a Cinderella outfit like George Mason last season. The mid-major Salukis are in the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive time after winning the Missouri Valley regular-season title.

The kids from Carbondale (pop. 21,000) earned a highest-ever four-seed (George Mason was 11th) in the West after being ranked as high as No. 11 by the Associated Press this season. The Salukis have been to the Sweet 16 twice, in 1977 and 2002, but have not advanced farther.

“It feels good to make it to the Sweet 16, but it would feel better to go to the Final Four,” said forward Tony Boyle, whose team has won 15 of its last 16, including a win at fellow Sweet 16 participant Butler. “It is easy to get caught up in the stardom, so we have to stay focused and just play basketball.”

The Salukis have a chance to upset Kansas partially because of MVC Player of the Year Jamaal Tatum, who drained six 3-pointers against the Hokies. A typical offensive series works the shot clock under 10 seconds before a player breaks free off a screen or Falker draws a double-team and locates an open man such as Tony Young or Tatum.

While the offense is effective, it is the defense that gives the team its identity. Southern Illinois allows just 56.1 points a game, the third-lowest total in the country. The small lineup, which usually has two 6-foot-7 starters and no other players over 6-2, plays a physical man-to-man help defense that face-guards the ball while cutting off penetration and getting into passing lanes.

“They do a good job contesting shots and staying in front of the ball,” said Zabian Dowdell, Virginia Tech’s All-ACC guard, who was held to seven points on 3-for-9 shooting. “I think every shot we took was a tough shot.”

Falker has become the key, particularly with fellow post player and third-leading scorer Matt Shaw questionable for the Kansas game with a high ankle sprain. The 6-7, 235-pound Falker, who was MVC defensive player of the year, had 12 rebounds, three blocks and three steals against Virginia Tech.

The defensive mentality starts in practice in SIU Arena with brutal, rugby-style scrimmages.

“We don’t call fouls or out of bounds,” third-year coach Chris Lowery said. “No matter what happens, you have to keep playing, and you’ve got to be tough with the ball and if somebody fouls you, you have to be stronger than the foul. … That’s how we teach them, just to play no matter what the circumstances.”

Lowery is the youthful architect of the plodding Salukis. The 34-year-old former Southern Illinois point guard spent two seasons as an assistant under Bruce Weber at Southern Illinois and one with him at Illinois before being called back to the top job.

The coach, who is one of the youngest in Division I, sees this season and this tournament run as a springboard to turn Southern Illinois into a Gonzaga-type program that can regularly compete with the sport’s elite.

“We were ranked for seven or eight weeks, so I think that has gotten our name out there,” said Lowery, whose team entered the tournament ranked No. 14. “Being a four-seed has gotten us known. Sweet 16 is not about putting our name out there — that’s about our program, about our future, about getting visible in the eyes of more recruits. We want to be visible in the Midwest, but we want to reach out even further than that.”

The Salukis have their chance tonight.

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