If Southern Illinois harbors any hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament short of winning the Missouri Valley Conference, Saturday's game with St. Mary's at the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis is a must-win.
The Salukis' six-year run of consecutive tournament appearances ended a year ago when they went 17-14. SIU is off to another 4-5 start, but a win over the Gaels could be a springboard to better things.
To make that happen, the Saluki defense will first have to contend with Naismith Award finalist Patrick Mills. Mills is deadly at both ends of the floor, averaging 20 points per game, dishing out almost 4 assists, and picking up more than 2 steals.
The Salukis will throw Bryan Mullins at him. Mullins stepped up huge in last year's game with the Gaels. He not only harassed Mills into a so-so night (11 points, 2 assists, 5 turnovers), but he lit up the gym with 24 points of his own. He'll need that kind of performance again if SIU is to have a chance.
Mullins will need some help from his backcourt mates Wesley Clemons and super freshman Kevin Dillard, who comes off the bench averaging over 9 points per game.
Even if the Salukis can lock up Mills, they are going to really have their hands full with the Gaels front court—6'11" Omar Samhan and 6'7" Daimon Simpson don't let you do much in the lane.
Simpson is the player who gets most of the accolades between the two, but Samhan is no longer taking a backseat to him. Simpson is all-time leader in blocked shots at St. Mary's, but he's second in the team to Samhan this season. Samhan is also the team's second leading scorer (to Mills) and rebounder (to Simpson).
It's going to be tough for Southern Illinois to handle those guys without Randal Falker this year. Carlton Fay is having a nice season, averaging 13.7 points per game, and 6'8" Tony Boyle is a physical presence inside; still, even combined, they don't match Simpson's rebounding numbers. Unfortunately, Boyle's also a bit foul prone. The Salukis need him on the floor in this game.
If Southern can dictate with their grind-it-out style, shoot well, and take care of the ball (not a strength), they have a chance. Otherwise, the Salukis are in for a long night.