Going behind the scenes with Southern Illinois in New York
Coach Chris Lowery was SIU's PG when it lost to Duke by 35 in '93
This time didn't go much better, as the Salukis fell 83-58
Southern Illinois takes on UCLA in a consolation round Friday
How does a mid-major game plan for a duel with Duke on national television in November? Southern Illinois gave SI an inside look at its preparations to face the No. 10 Blue Devils in the semifinals of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic on Thursday. Here's how it went down:
NEW YORK -- History has a way of seeping into pregame speeches, particularly when that history is haunting. It was March 18, 1993, when Southern Illinois last met Duke, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The result was not one to cherish: a 105-70 rout by the third-seeded Blue Devils, who had won the past two national championships. The Salukis' point guard then, Chris Lowery, is their head coach now, and when he addressed his team Wednesday night at its Manhattan hotel, on the eve of their first duel with Duke in 15 years, he offered an ominous warning:
"If you don't play hard, it will be embarrassing. Trust me on that. I had to go home [after that NCAA tournament loss] and listen to all my boys in the barbershop say, 'Bobby Hurley got 28 on you.' I have to live with that now. Even before this game, I've had so many people call me and say, 'You gonna let Duke whoop you like they did the last time?' It's funny, to think that [even though] I haven't played in a long time, people remember that. If you do something special, people remember that, but when you stink, they remember that, too."
There was reason to believe that this meeting would not end with as many regrets. Southern Illinois had come a long ways since its appearance as a No. 14 seed in '93, making six straight NCAA tournaments from 2002-07, the last of which featured a Sweet 16 trip as a No. 4 seed. "Floorburn U," they call it now under Lowery, is an established defensive powerhouse in the Missouri Valley Conference, despised by its opponents for using its swarming, pressure-man defense to turn games into low-scoring dogfights.
"We didn't know how to stop Duke [in '93]," Lowery told his players. "I watched that game the other day, and they were doing basic s---. Ball screens at the top of the key. We didn't change our game plan, and they kept getting the same thing on us. That's not to disrespect what we were doing, but we didn't know how to defend stuff. YOU DO. You know how to defend stuff. There shouldn't be any fear factor of us going out there guarding anything they have."
Earlier Wednesday, on the sixth floor of the New York Athletic Club, the 140-year-old gym on Central Park South, SIU gathered for its last full practice before battling Duke. A vintage, elevated track is suspended around the edges of the gym, and older men in sweatclothes worked out on the treadmills and weight machines at either end of the court. The dress code here -- business casual in non-workout areas -- tends to keep the crowd corporate. "This is Walt Frazier's old school, right?" one club member asked. "What are you guys doing in New York?" Duke, tomorrow, was the answer.
Assistant coach Rodney Watson, a jovial veteran of 21 years on the SIU bench -- coaching Lowery in '93 and now serving as Lowery's assistant -- is the team's ace scout, and the practice concluded with him walking the Salukis through their defensive game plan. There were Duke's flex step-ins for Brian Zoubek or Miles Plumlee. Backdoor cuts on pinch post plays for Jon Scheyer. Dives from the high post by Kyle Singler. Drives from the top of the key by Singler (whose name was mentioned far more than the others). Penetration from the wing by Gerald Henderson.
Southern Illinois' defensive principles offered answers to all these modes of attack. They trapped off of ball screens by Duke's big men, and rotated to cut off open threes. They scissored cutters along the baseline. They closed out hard on shooters, with two hands in the air. They jumped to the ball to cut off penetration from the wings. "If those guys get in the middle," said SIU graduate assistant Tony Young, himself a former All-MVC defender, now watching from the sideline, "you have all kinds of chaos."
NO MAN'S LAND! Close out -- no dribble middle. That was the second starred item (under the heading "Keys to beating Duke") on the front page of the packet Watson handed out later that night at the team hotel, before Lowery served up his Hurley story. Watson incorporated some history of his own, tell the players assembled before him in five rows of ballroom chairs, "This game [plan] was built on coach [Gene] Keady at Purdue trying to beat Indiana and Bob Knight. Krzyzewski is a Knight guy. Coach [Bruce] Weber, [Lowery's predecessor at SIU], is a Purdue guy. We built our concepts into this. Keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor -- that's been going on since Keady and Knight were battling it out with each other. If we keep it out of the middle, unbelievably good things are going to happen to us."
The next point on Watson's sheet -- before he launched into a detailed rundown of each player -- was "limit their second chances." They were shown video clips, ad nauseam, of Duke finding ways to tip balls on the offensive glass, Duke rebounding missed free throws, Duke hustling to save long caroms on three-point attempts. "You see those guys?" Lowery said at one point, making sure his team took note of the Blue Devils' hustle. "Animals. They're f----- animals." Added Watson after a clip from the Georgia Southern game, "They're up 40 and they're still doing this!"
In Southern Illinois' locker room at Madison Square Garden -- a cramped box with barely enough space to hold the team and six or seven staff members -- Watson had their battle plan on the whiteboard prior to Thursday's game. In their last bit of silence before departing for the national anthem, they covered matchups -- sophomore star Carlton Fay on Singler, senior defensive whiz Bryan Mullins on Scheyer, and so on -- and pounded home quick reminders. WAR REBOUND was one. TOUGHNESS IN THE TRENCHES was another. If they were going to win they'd have to make it a Saluki-styled game, with Duke on its heels, transition buckets kept to a minimum and the turnover margin significantly in SIU's favor. For each Blue Devils player, there was a full line of scouting-report skinny in fine print, followed with the same word: BLOCKOUT. Thirteeen times. BLOCKOUT.
Even the best-laid plans can come unraveled, especially when you're unranked Southern Illinois and they're 10th-ranked Duke. By halftime, the rebounding margin was 28-15 in the Blue Devils' favor. All of coach K's minions were crashing the glass: Singler had four boards, Zoubek had four, Scheyer had four, Plumlee had four. The Salukis' aims at toughness were causing them to lose the Whistle War in brutal fashion, as Duke took 19 first-half free-throw attempts compared to SIU's eight. Five Salukis had two fouls each at the break. They were, at least, still creating turnovers, forcing Duke in to 15 giveaways against just four assists. And SIU was stepping up and taking charges, too.
Late Wednesday night, in a sports-themed suite (dominated by a photo of Mark Messier) on the 28th floor of their hotel, Lowery and his assistants gathered to re-watch a DVD of Duke's one-point victory over Rhode Island on Sunday. They saw too many Blue Devil buckets coming on unchecked drives and leaps from outside the lane. Lowery was almost disgusted by the lack of defense he was seeing. "All those," he said forcefully, "have to be charges." The Salukis took two (one on Nolan Smith, another on Singler) in one 46-second stretch of the first half, when they took a 17-14 lead. And they only trailed 29-23 at the break.
What Lowery and his assistants also saw in that Rhode Island game, though, were two superlative offensive performances -- from Delroy James and Jimmy Baron -- that kept the Rams neck-and-neck with Duke's uptempo scoring attack. Baron's absurd performance (24 points on 8-of-10 long-distance shooting, mostly on step-backs with hands in his face) was filled with what Lowery called "Playstation shots" and "Lil' Buddy shots" -- because "You can call the guy guarding you Lil' Buddy after you make one of those." And unfortunately, despite all the turnovers it created (19), Southern Illinois didn't get the kind of offensive performances it needed to keep pace. It shot just 35.1 percent from the floor on the game, and was outrebounded 42-28. Fay was 6-of-17 from the field for 17 points, but was limited by foul trouble. Senior backcourt starters Mullins and Wesley Clemmons combined for seven points, and the Salukis went down in a blaze of whistles. The final free-throw margin was 47-to-19 in Duke's favor. Southern Illinois had its defensive principles wired into its game plan. But it fouled more than it put them into action.
While watching the DVD on Wednesday, Lowery received a text message from a teammate on his '93 squad, who was excited, from afar, about their rematch with the Blue Devils. "Please beat Duke to make up for the last time we played them," it read. But it was not, alas, a night for making amends. The final score -- 83-58 -- wasn't as bad as 15 years ago, but it was close. Here, though, at the Garden, they had a luxury that the NCAA tournament does not afford: a consolation round. Freshly upset UCLA awaits SIU on Friday, and a win over the Bruins, most likely, could ensure that this loss to Duke won't be remembered at all.