New Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery won't have the luxury of anonymity that Matt Painter enjoyed last year. Painter took over the Salukis last season when Bruce Weber bolted up the road to Illinois. The combination of a new coach in Painter and the loss of stars Kent Williams and Jermaine Dearman left just about everyone overlooking SIU as a championship contender. Big mistake. The Salukis won 25 games, claimed their third straight Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.
Painter left Carbondale, Ill., to become an assistant at Purdue, where he will succeed Gene Keady after this season. His replacement is Lowery, a former Saluki point guard and assistant coach who spent last season with Weber at Illinois. He returns home to take over a team hyped as potentially better than last season's club. Rest assured, the Salukis won't be picked to finish fifth again this season.
It starts with Darren Brooks, the Valley's Player of the Year last season. Brooks led the Salukis in scoring (16.5 ppg), rebounding (5.7 rpg) and clutch plays on both ends of the court. The league coaches selected the 6-foot-3 Brooks as the MVC Defensive Player of the Year. The other returning starter is Stetson Hairston, who averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while playing the same kind of stifling defense Brooks displayed. Hairston's status, however, is in question after he was suspended from the team indefinitely, following charges filed against him and freshman teammate Mike Dale for their alleged involvement in a fight in July. (Dale was suspended for three games.)
Lowery will have to replace starters Brad Korn, Bryan Turner and Sylvester Willis but has four other players back who averaged at least 10 minutes per game. LaMar Owen, the league's Sixth Man of the Year last season, should move into one of the starting spots. Jamaal Tatum, who earned a spot on the Valley All-Freshman team, lightning-quick guard Tony Young and 6-8 banger Josh Warren all should see additional playing time this season.
Lowery promises few changes in what has become a winning formula for the Salukis.
"Why change?" he asked. "It is very important we keep everything the same. This is what I know now: I've been to several other places, but this is the most successful scheme, plan and direction of a program I've been in."