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Salukis look to ride their defense deep into this year’s NCAA tournament

Over the past few years, the Southern Illinois Salukis have become a reoccurring member of March Madness. Not only do the Salukis take their gritty defensive game into the tournament year after year, but they usually hang around in March, and they drive opponents crazy. This season, a year removed from a four-seed in last years tournament, the Salukis are looking to make a serious run at not only the programs first Final Four appearance, but further more a national title.

The 18th ranked Salukis, straight out of the much improved Missouri Valley Conference, have already jumped out to an early 3-0 record on the heels of a defense that swallows up most, and usually all of the Saluki’s opponents.

In their opening game, the Salukis forced Northern Illinois to squander its first 19 possessions with 13 missed shots, four turnovers and four botched free-throw tries in falling behind 17-0 before Bryan Paradise’s floating jumper finally got the Huskies (0-4) on the board with 10:12 left in the first half.

Talk about hard to find points.

Coach Chris Lowery’s Salukis are good, and possibly for the first time, experts, coaches, players, and fans across the country may very well realize that they are legit too.

Sure, the Salukis may lack the tradition of a big name program like Duke. The Salukis lack in just about everything that is commercial about college basketball.

They come from the Missouri Valley Conference, and while it may not be a superior conference like the Big East or the ACC, it does develop teams that make coaches in those “better” conferences very uneasy because of the style of play that comes out of the MVC.

The Salukis are ranked above North Carolina, Memphis and Duke, but below Syracuse, Virginia and Clemson.

No tradition; a mid-major conference – even their coach has a tough time getting noticed on the national scene for his excellent work at the university – but the Saluki players know how to play.

Their defense, as already mentioned, is currently #3 in the country in points allowed per game. They can also score points, something the Saluki teams of the past lacked.

Four of the five Saluki starters average 10.0 points per game or better and senior forward Randal Falker averages 17.0 ppg. Bryan Mullins, a junior guard, dishes out a lofty 7.0 assists per game, while junior Tony Boyle is tied with Falker for the team lead in rebounds with 5.0 per game.

Assuming the Salukis continue to play well, they may very well get some national attention starting tonight with their game vs. USC (11:00 pm EST ESPN2).

Other big games on the Salukis slate include #8 Indiana on December 1, #23 Butler on December 23, Wichita State on January 19 and at Bradley on February 26.

The Salukis play a defense much like that of the old UCLA teams, and I think everyone knows how much success those teams had. Obviously, the Bruins had a legendary coach in John Wooden, and premiere scorers such as Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes, but defense was always the staple of UCLA National Title teams.

The Salukis aren’t the legendary Bruin teams, but this isn’t the 1970’s either. Mid-major teams have proven longevity in the tournament and with the show George Mason put on in 2006, they showed mid-major teams can play with just about anybody.

While it may be a little early and a stretch to consider the Salukis a national title contender, it is no stretch to dub the Salukis as a pain in the ass to play.

If you are an old school fan who likes to watch defensive tilts, the Salukis are the team for you. And if you don’t, well then you just may be in for a surprise when the Salukis upset your favorite team.

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All stats courtesy of ESPN.com, SI.com and siusalukis.cstv.com.

Copyright ©2007 Colin Cerniglia. All Rights Reserved.

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