The non-conference season is over, with the exception of BracketBusters in late February, and here are some thoughts on the 7-4 Saluki basketball team.
1. It's still hard to gauge just how good this team is. They've beaten the teams they should beat (with the possible exception of the loss to UC Davis), and lost to the teams you expected them to lose to. The Strength of Schedule stands at 307 out of 347, and Southern's best win came at home versus Fresno State (235). They have four wins over 300+ RPI teams, and the combined Division I record of the teams they've beaten is 16-41.
2. Setting the RPI numbers aside, Southern passes the eye test of an improved basketball team over last year's 8-23 squad. They play hard and unselfishly. The players have bought into Barry Hinson's system. The next step is to improve upon last year's 5-13 record in the MVC, and that seems doable.
3. It was good to hear Coach Hinson speak out after last night's game about the schedule. Playing just two Division I home games prior to the conference season is not a good way to generate excitement about your program. The schedule also needs to be significantly upgraded from a competitive standpoint. The new coaching staff inherited games with SIUE, SLU, Fresno State, Western Kentucky and Green Bay. They added the New Orleans home-and-home series, Benedictine-Springfield and the Utah tournament.
4. Desmar Jackson was the best player at the World Vision Challenge in Utah. He was simply fantastic, averaging 22.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 steals. He shot 52 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. His defense was also excellent. He just has a knack for getting deflections and steals.
5. If I had to compare Jackson to a past Saluki, I would liken him to Darren Brooks. They both have a smooth, graceful style on the court and both do so many different things to help their team. Brooks was much more than a scorer. He was a great rebounder, defender and passer. Jackson has those qualities, also. If he had been a Saluki for four years, I think he would be putting up Brooks-like career numbers.
6. During multiple interviews in Utah, Jackson went out of his way to praise Hinson. Jackson's off-the-court problems with grades and bad behavior appear to be behind him. Hinson seems to be influencing Jackson's approach to life in general, and that is good to see.
7. Dantiel Daniels struggled against the length of Utah State's front court, going 3-for-7 from the field, but he had a tremendous tournament otherwise. In fact, he was 14-for-19 from the field against UC Davis and Nicholls State. Daniels is only 6-foot-5, and as Southern's only scoring threat in the paint, he draws a lot of attention. He could really use a guy like Mamadou Seck to share the load in the front court.
8. Other than Jackson and Daniels, the rest of the team struggled offensively in Utah. In fact, they combined to shoot just 26 percent from the field and 21 percent from three. To be competitive in the Valley, Southern is going to need a couple more scoring options to step up in addition to Jackson and Daniels.
9. I don't know what to make of Kendal Brown-Surles' performance in Utah. I know he was recovering from strep throat. He shot 1-for-13 from the field and just struggled all-around. After leading the team in minutes per game, he played only nine minutes against Utah State and drew the ire of Hinson in post-game comments. Heading into the tournament, his numbers were in line with what he's done throughout his career, so hopefully, this is just a bump in the road. He's the team's only true point guard and they need him.
10. The game was a little too big for Southern's freshman guards in Utah. Anthony Beane was 6-for-25 from the field and Jalen Pendleton was 1-for-6. The more I see of Beane, though, the more I like him. I hesitate to throw this out there, but he reminds me of a young Osiris Eldridge. Beane is an explosive player with the best vertical jump on the team. He plays with a swagger. Eldridge averaged 9.5 points per game as a freshman, and Beane is currently averaging 9.3 points. Sometimes, the degree of difficulty of Beane's shots is a little too high, but I think when his body fills out and he improves the consistency of his 3-point shot, he could develop into a very good player in the MVC.
11. Jeff Early struggled from the field in Utah, making 10-of-28 shots, but he just plays so hard and does so many little things to help the team, it's hard to complain about his shooting percentage. He leads the team in taking charges. He does a solid job of guarding guys who are much taller than he is. He's leading the team in rebounding. He's also the emotional heart and soul of the squad. After leading the team in scoring in the first four games, he's come back down to earth, but he's still a critical component of this year's team.
12. I continue to be amazed that Southern is able to rebound as well as it does, given how small the team is. It seemed like every Utah State player towered over his Saluki counterpart, but at the end of the game, SIU had one more rebound than the Aggies.
13. The advantage SIU has with playing small is how quick and nimble the team is. I chatted with a UC Davis player at the hotel this morning. He was one of their big men, and he said the biggest concern they had was Southern quickness.
14. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the defense. Opponents shot 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point in Utah. There are some very efficient offenses that Southern will face in the Valley, and right now, they're not ready to stop them. Coach Hinson emphatically told the team after yesterday's game that they will get better defensively when they get back from Christmas break.
15. People keep asking me where I think Southern will finish in the Valley. In the preseason poll, I picked them ninth, but I think they could finish a few spots higher than that. Creighton, Wichita State and Illinois State appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Indiana State, UNI and Evansville are in that second tier which Southern and others will try to crack.