King of all mid-majors (cont.)
Posted: Saturday February 17, 2007 10:19PM; Updated: Saturday February 17, 2007 10:24PM
It seemed to hit Butler like a grenade in the second half, as they committed five turnovers -- including four by point guard Mike Green, who finished with 18 points and, in the first half, carved up SIU's perimeter defense at will. When A.J. Graves, the Bulldogs' leading scorer on the season at 17.6 points per game, fouled out with 2:27 to go, he had exactly the same number of points -- five -- after being dogged by a combination of Young, Tatum, Bryan Mullins and Tyrone Green. Graves was worn down enough to shoot just 1-of-5 from beyond the arc, and -- despite entering the game as the nation's No. 1 foul shooter at 96.5 percent -- front-rimmed his first attempt from the line.
"The big thing with Graves is that he can get you off-balance," said Lowery. "But we never let him get us off-balance with his dribble or his shot-fakes. We closed out on him and really took him out of his game, and if he got by one of us, we either fouled him or made him pass it."
By keeping Graves under wraps -- and forcing the Bulldogs to shoot an uncharacteristically low 40.9 percent from the field -- SIU earned the honor of being the first visiting team to win at Hinkle this season (Butler had been 12-0 there) as well as the only top-50 RPI team to topple them anywhere (Butler had beaten Indiana, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Purdue). Given the Salukis have also won eight straight to lead the Missouri Valley, they may be able to lay claim to the title of not only king of the blue-collar mid-majors, but king of all the mid-majors -- one worthy of a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament.
SIU, which has made it to the past five NCAAs, was routed in the first round by West Virginia last season -- and therefore left out of the Valley craze that swept the nation during Wichita State and Bradley's runs to the Sweet 16. In 2006-07, powered by their senior backcourt duo of Young and Tatum, they've come back with a vengeance, led by their defense which ranks 13th nationally in efficiency. "We take defense personally," said Young. "If you want to just score points, you're not going to survive here."
Tatum said there's usually a point, late in games, when he can see the Salukis' pressure getting to opponents -- when they fall, he says, or throw the ball out of bounds, or dribble off of their feet, "those are all good signs." Between Green and Graves and fellow senior Brandon Crone, all of those things happened to Butler in the second half. On the game's final possession, with the Bulldogs trailing by four, Green penetrated into the SIU gridlock, drew contact and tumbled to the floor -- without a whistle -- as the buzzer sounded. An ESPN cameraman ran up for a closeup as Green lay with his head on the Hinkle floor, wincing in pain.
It was an uncomfortable moment. And also, perhaps, the only way for the blue-collar battle to end.