Think back six years ago. Where were you? What were you doing? What was happening in the world of sports? Here's a reminder: The Boston Red Sox were World Champions, the Colts and Bears were Super Bowl foes, LeBron James fell just short of his first championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Anaheim Ducks were Stanley Cup champions.
And in the world of college basketball, the Southern Illinois Salukis were a force to be reckoned with. The Salukis had reached the postseason six years in a row from 2002-2007, including Sweet Sixteen appearances in '02 and '07. Bruce Weber and Matt Painter had left the program to assume the position of head coach at Illinois and Purdue respectively, and Chris Lowery took over the Dawgs in 2004 with immediate success, leading the team to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a Sweet Sixteen.
A lot has changed in six years. Now the Boston Red Sox are in turmoil, LeBron James has a ring (and with Miami!), and the Kings are defending Stanley Cup champions. Unfortunately, Saluki basketball is not the same either.
However, despite last season being the worst in the history of Saluki basketball with a dismal 8-23 record, this season has already seen a large amount of improvement from the previous year.
Coach Barry Hinson, in his first year as head coach for the Salukis, is doing a great job with the boys. Despite a few rough patches in conference play, the Dawgs already have surpassed last year's overall win total. The team also scored a big upset over Wichita State at home, who at the time was ranked No. 22 in the coaches' poll. Hinson had a successful career at Missouri State, as well as director of basketball operations at the University of Kansas, who was the national runner-up in 2012 to Kentucky.
Coach Hinson cares about the fans. After each game, he makes it a point to acknowledge the students in attendance, as well as acknowledging all four sides of the court after a big win. Coach understands that he not only needs to re-establish the basketball team, but also the fan base.
The first recruiting class of the Barry Hinson era has shown great promise to the level of Hinson's recruiting abilities. True freshman Anthony Beane, Jr. is third on the team in scoring with 9.5 PPG. Freshman forward Bola Olaniyan is yet to play, but is a great addition for the future, as he stands an impressive 6'7".
Fortunately for the Salukis, only three players will be graduating, with the rest of the team consisting of underclassmen. Coach Hinson has said that senior Kendal Brown-Surles will be staying to become a manager for the team next year, providing peer guidance both off of the court and in the locker room.
In recent years, discipline has been a large issue for the Dawgs. Multiple off-court incidents occurred, including a 2011 incident in which three players were suspended when they were charged with battery for attacking teammate Davante Drinkard with an Airsoft gun.
Former SIU player Justin Bocot was also suspended as he was investigated for sexual assault in 2011, although he was not charged with a crime at any point. During the actual season, the Dawgs have been without major incident under Coach Hinson, a very good mark on Hinson's record in the first season.
As for the team as a whole, there has already been improvement over last year. With four regular season games left as well as the Arch Madness conference tournament, the Salukis already have three more wins than last season.
The 2011-12 Salukis ranked 281st overall in points per game with 62.7, and have thus far improved on that mark this year. This season has seen a small increase in PPG, up to 64.0 PPG. Another bright spot is their 7-4 home record, which can almost certainly be attributed to the increase in attendance and vice versa.
It's a great time to be a Saluki basketball fan. The fan base has begun to return, SIU Arena is more beautiful than ever after undergoing a $29.9 million renovation before the 2010 season, and Coach Hinson has already shown a tremendous amount of promise at the helm.
Southern travels to Creighton Tuesday to face the Blue Jays, who have lost three of their last four. A win at Creighton would certainly be another big accomplishment for the Salukis, and would give them even more confidence going into the conference tournament and final games of the season.
Pull out the old Southern shirts, folks. Gone are the days of futility for the Dawgs, with a promising new era now underway in Carbondale under Hinson's leadership. I find myself imaging more Sweet Sixteens, sold out crowds, and the return of College Gameday to the beautiful SIU Arena. Now let's start recruiting and re-establish the Saluki name in college basketball.