For the first time since 2002, SIU is in the Sweet 16 and will be looking for the biggest win in the history of the university tonight against the Kansas Jayhawks. This isn't just a game, this is the game. A victory tonight would without a doubt put SIU on the college basketball map for good. It would solidify SIU as the best basketball school in the state. It would be the stepping stone of bigger and better things to come.
And if they lose?
SIU's 29 victories this year is already a school record. The positive press that SIU has been getting because of the hoops squad can only help the university's public relations. And with top recruits in the pipeline for at least the next two-to-three years, SIU basketball is (and will be in good shape.)
Tonight's game against Kansas is not just another game, I cannot stress that enough. KU is one of the premier basketball schools in the entire country. They're the No. 1 seed in the West bracket and are the No. 2 team in the country. KU has all the talent in the world. They have the size, speed, strength and raw talent edge over SIU. Their squad is filled with potential NBA draft picks and McDonald's All-Americans coming off their bench. KU has everything to be a National Championship contender every year. With that said, I'm sure most "experts" are picking KU in a blow out.
Not if SIU has anything to say about it. Where SIU lacks in talent, size and raw skill--they make up with hustle, grit, determination, defense and smarts. SIU has the edge in experience lead by senior leaders, guards Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young. 6-foot-7 forward Randal Falker has gone toe-to-toe with guys bigger than him, including 7-foot NBA lottery pick Patrick O'Bryant who was selected by the Golden State Warriors. O'Bryant was on Bradley's squad last year that upset KU in the first round.
So what does that mean for tonight? Well, for starters it's the ultimate game of contrasts. KU is going to want to make this game a track meet, trying to make missed jump shots into easy transition points as often as possible. SIU is going to try to slow the game tempo. Forcing KU to defend deep into the shot clock when on the offensive end, and pressuring the Jayhawks at every chance with the much ballyhooed third ranked defense that allows only 56.1 points per game.
Offensively, the Egyptian Hunting Dawgs will rely heavily on Tatum to make key decisions and key shots. He has matured so much since I've been here at SIU. The wild-card in tonight's game is the health of Matt Shaw. Shaw, like KU's Brandon Rush (6-foot-5) and Julian Wright (6-foot-8), causes match-up problems by being a 6-foot-7 player that can play both down low in the post, but can also drain mid-to-long range jump shots. Shaw hasn't played since the first half of the Holy Cross game where at the end of the half he suffered a high ankle sprain. If Shaw can't go, SIU will most likely go with the hero of the HC game 6-foot-8 forward Tony Boyle.
The best thing about KU is that they're human. And if there's anything I've learned in my life as a sports fan, it's that on any given day any team can beat another. Take this take from ESPN.com:
- ...will lose when: The defense doesn't allow Kansas to notch a handful of easy baskets. At times this is a team whose perimeter shooting simply disappears, and if transition buckets are hard to come by, the offense can experience damaging dry spells.
KEYS FOR SIU WIN:
- Stay out of foul trouble. That's key for both Falker and Tatum. Falker especially if Shaw is unable to perform at a high level. SIU doesn't have much size depth behind No. 14, and the offense tends to struggle if either he or Tatum are out or ineffective.
- Don't let KU get easy buckets. Easier said than done, but if KU can't get easy transition points and is having an iffy shooting night, they are definitely beatable.
- Get On The D! Stay On The D! SIU must play nearly flawless on the defensive end to give themselves a shot to win. But they can't afford to foul!
- Bench production. SIU must "steal" minutes from guys like Wesley Clemmons, Tyrone Green, Joshua Bone, maybe even Jamaal Foster and Boyle if he doesn't start.
- And finally....just go out there and have fun. All of the pressure is on KU. The last two years they've lost to "mid-majors" Bucknell and Bradley---so it's not as if they are unbeatable. The Dawgs have a slight edge in the intangibles department with Tatum and Young playing like it will be their last game, because it very well might be.
P.S. KU has lost to a No. 4 seed before in the Sweet 16. Note Arizona's victory in the 1997 tourney. I know, we're not 'Zona....but can Jamaal Tatum be Mike Bibby for just one night?
In closing, I can't help but to quote a former Cubs manager "Why Not Us? Why Not Now?"
GO SOUTHERN GO!