CARBONDALE, Ill. - Not much time has passed since Southern Illinois ranked right up there with Gonzaga, Xavier, Memphis and Butler as one of the nation's top non-Big Six programs.
It only seems that way.
Southern Illinois made six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2002-07 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in two of those seasons. Coach Chris Lowery won big with the same defense-minded philosophy that predecessors Bruce Weber and Matt Painter utilized on their way to the Big Ten. When Lowery signed a heralded 2008 recruiting class that featured Anthony Booker (the No. 43 prospect in the nation) and Kevin Dillard (No. 136), SIU seemed ready to remain a national contender for the long haul.
The rise ...
Here's a look at SIU's year-by-year record during its run of six consecutive NCAA appearances. The team was coached by Bruce Weber the first two seasons, Matt Painter in 2003-04 and Chris Lowery the last three seasons.
NCAA Sweet 16
NCAA first round
NCAA first round
NCAA second round
NCAA first round
NCAA Sweet 16
Six NCAA appearances
SIU's year-by-year record over the past three seasons, all under Lowery.
NIT second round
One NIT appearance
"I think the expectations were that we would be able to continue that level of basketball and produce Sweet 16-caliber teams," SIU athletic director Mario Moccia said. "There are great teams that have first-round exits, so you can never say, 'We're building a team for the Final Four.'
"But getting to the second round of the tournament, that was something we thought maybe we had the caliber of athletes and style of play to do."
The program instead has gone backward.
The Salukis are a combined 28-33 - including 14-22 in Missouri Valley Conference competition - in the past two seasons. And all four members of that highly touted 2008 recruiting class are gone.
Reaching the Sweet 16 allowed SIU to recruit a higher caliber of athlete, but the Salukis now wonder if they lost a bit of their identity along the way. The team that billed itself as "Floor-burn U." often was outhustled.
"With the level we had this thing at, you want blue-chip athletes but you can't ignore who you are," Lowery said. "I think we did."
The Salukis now are starting over in an unusual way. They're breaking in the newly renovated SIU Arena with a roster that includes three incoming junior college players. Instead of seeing JC prospects as a quick fix, Southern Illinois views them as a stabilizing force.
It has worked before.
Southern Illinois has thrived with JC players in the past. Marcus Belcher began his career at Moberly Area (Mo.) Community College before developing into the starting point guard of the Salukis' 2002 Sweet 16 team. Bryan Turner and LaMar Owen helped SIU reach the NCAA tournament in 2004 after arriving from junior college.
"We felt we needed to get juniors," Lowery said. "We needed to get older kids. Those kids [from the 2008 class] would have been juniors. We went to places where we'd gotten players in the past that were on our very good teams. We went back to the well with guys we knew could play hard, play our system."
Coaches also hope they can fill the gaping holes on the roster left by the vanishing 2008 class.
Ryan Hare was kicked off the team before his sophomore season, and Torres Roundtree left during his freshman season. Dillard, a former Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year, transferred to Dayton after leading the MVC with 5.0 assists per game last season. Booker, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds, transferred to Iowa State.
Although Dillard and Booker delivered solid production during their two seasons at Southern Illinois, they couldn't continue the Salukis' recent tradition of competing for MVC titles. For whatever reason, the fit just never seemed right, and Booker and Dillard declined to comment on their SIU experiences.
In the past, SIU had thrived on its underdog mentality. The Salukis weren't accustomed to getting top-150 recruits. They instead thrived on finding under-the-radar talents who were ideal matches for their style of play.
He isn't used to losing
SIU coach Chris Lowery played on two NCAA tournament teams and two NIT squads during his playing career with the Salukis, and he also hadn't lost much as a coach before the past two seasons. Here's a look at his year-by-year record as an assistant and as a head coach.
"Remember in that first 'Rocky' movie, Apollo Creed's messing around and signing autographs?" Moccia said. "And his manager is looking at him saying, 'We don't want this guy. Nobody knows about him, but he's tough. Why mess with this guy? Get somebody else.'
"I kind of thought we were Rocky Balboa."
Moccia said the Salukis lost their street-fighter mentality.
"All of us hoped that class was going to continue that, but it became apparent that maybe when you recruit a different caliber of athlete, you might lose some of that toughness, some of that teamwork, some of that synergy we had," he said. "Chris now has gone back a little bit. He's not focusing so much on what kid has the most talent. It's who has the most desire. Who fits into the role? Who's going to be a selfless player and play defense?"
The slide began when Southern Illinois went 18-15 in 2007-08. The Salukis fell to 13-18 in 2008-09, but seemed on the verge of turning things around when they raced to a 9-2 start last season. They lost eight of their last 11 games and finished 15-15.
SIU won at least a share of five MVC titles in a six-season span from 2001-07, but the Salukis have finished third, fifth and ninth, respectively, in the past three seasons.
"We had a lot of high expectations," said senior forward Carlton Fay, one of two returning starters from last season's team. "Stuff just didn't work out. You've just got to put that in the rear-view mirror and not worry about it."
The Salukis' win totals went down as opponents' point totals started going up. SIU went 29-7 and reached the Sweet 16 in 2007 by relying on a suffocating defense that allowed just 56.2 points per game. Last season, Southern Illinois allowed 67.5 points per game, the highest average since 2000-01. Lowery wants the opponent's scoring average down in the mid-50s again.
Things got so troublesome last season that Lowery - a man-to-man proponent - had to utilize some zone defenses, a move he considered a last resort.
"Everybody was giving effort," senior guard Justin Bocot said, "but it seemed like we weren't on the same page."
The Salukis struggled to maintain intensity on defense, and they also weren't patient enough to run the shot clock down with their motion offense. Their inability to control the tempo produced higher scores. Opponents also regularly outworked the Salukis, which never happened during their run of six consecutive NCAA appearances.
"The No. 1 thing I was seeing was the other teams diving on the floor for loose balls while we were standing over a play," Lowery said. "I was seeing other teams be extremely physical with us while we were complaining to the officials. I saw us getting technical fouls, which is something uncharacteristic of any team I've coached."
Lowery believes his newcomers will change that by bringing a hard-nosed mentality that was missing from his past few teams.
Troy Long, a 6-foot guard from Southeastern Illinois College, shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range last season and has a reputation as a solid defender. Mamadou Seck is a 6-7 forward from Senegal who averaged close to a double-double at Southeastern Illinois. Mykel Cleveland, a 6-1 guard, helped Southwestern Illinois College win a combined 57 games in his two seasons on campus.
The incoming class isn't solely comprised of JC prospects. The Salukis signed true freshman Davante Drinkard, a 6-8 forward from Toccoa, Ga., who missed most of his senior season in high school with a broken foot. Redshirt freshmen Jordan Myers and Diamond Taylor also will make their debuts this season.
Lowery knows exactly what he wants to see from them.
"When you look at how we've been in the past, it's never been about scoring," Lowery said. "It's always been about defensively getting stuff in transition, wearing you down, making free throws because we get you in foul trouble.
"Those are the things we have to worry about. We don't have to worry about who's going to make shots or who's going to be our offensive guys. That's why this program went the wrong way, because we worried too much about that instead of worrying about what made us successful."
Lowery was one of the nation's hottest young coaching prospects just a few years ago. Lowery, a former SIU guard, began coaching his alma mater at the age of 31 and led the Salukis to the NCAA tournament in each of his first three seasons. He signed a seven-year contract reportedly worth $750,000 per season after the 2007 Sweet 16 appearance.
Where is everybody?
SIU's recent reversal of fortune has produced a drop in attendance. Here's a look at the Salukis' average home attendance over the past four seasons.
Southern Illinois' recent slump hasn't put Lowery on the hot seat, as he still has four years left on his contract. Moccia said he couldn't envision any scenario in which Lowery isn't coaching the Salukis next season.
"He's our coach for now and in the future," Moccia said.
But Lowery still feels pressure, even if it's of his own making. The past two seasons, especially. have brought an unfamiliar, uncomfortable feeling for a guy who's used to winning.
He played his high school ball at Evansville (Ind.) Harrison on a team that included eventual Butkus Award-winning linebacker Kevin Hardy and Wooden Award recipient Calbert Cheaney. New Clemson coach Brad Brownell was a senior on Harrison's varsity team when Lowery was an underclassman on the junior varsity squad.
SIU reached two NCAA tournaments and earned two NIT bids during Lowery's college playing career. He posted a combined record of 106-41 in his first four seasons as a head coach. No wonder he's so frustrated about the Salukis' recent struggles.
"It's tough," Lowery said, "because I've never lost at any level."
Even if Lowery isn't in any danger of losing his job, this represents an important season for his program. Attendance dipped from 7,743 in the 2007 Sweet 16 season to 4,780 last season, a drop of 38 percent.
SIU just completed a $29.9 million renovation of SIU Arena that includes 1,200 additional chairback seats and a new scoreboard, though the seating capacity actually is dropping from 9,409 to about 8,500. The university also made an additional $11.3 million in improvements that included new training and locker-room facilities for the basketball and football programs.
The renovations should bring more spectators to the arena this season, but only a winning team will guarantee they stay. Lowery believes those fans will help him realize when the Salukis have regained their former identity.
"Our fans are blue-collar," Lowery said. "They're hard-working, Midwestern people. They understand one thing, and that's toughness and playing hard.
"When our fans start cheering for us again on defensive stops like other programs cheer for scores, I'll know it means we have the culture back."