Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
After an ugly loss that extended an already ugly streak of play, head coach Barry Hinson took it on he and his coaching staff to make changes that have clearly paid off with some momentum entering the conference tournament.
"The opposing fans, the bench, they were all laughing at us, that's how bad it was."
It was February 2nd, and Southern Illinois was in a bad place. They had just managed to open their road game against Illinois State by being outscored 20-5, and then closed the game on the wrong side of another 31-7 run, leaving them stuck as the loser by a nasty 83-47 loss - their sixth in a row and eleventh loss in their last 12 games.
"I got ejected so I missed the final 40 seconds of the game, I wasn't out there with my guys. I think it showed them that I wasn't giving up on them no matter what, and I think that matters," Hinson said. "We as a coaching staff decided that wasn't going to happen again."
So what changed?
"We decided to grade the players on their attitude and their effort, regardless of what the scoreboard read," Hinson said. "If they executed, we were happy."
This was not entirely new, but the game against the Redbirds led to a doubling down on the principle, which all stemmed from a conversation with a Hoosier.
"Before this season, I had a long conversation with (Indiana Hoosiers associate head coach) Tim Buckley, because he's an old friend and I'm comfortable discussing these things with him," Hinson said. "He told me that there are going to be a lot of days that are difficult, but you have to stay positive all the time."
"That game was a real test for us, but every single day we work on being positive. It goes back to what I learned from Coach (Bill) Self; every single day is an opportunity to get better, so you have to get better each day."
Since that shift in attitude, the results have come for the Salukis. They finished the season on a 6-2 run, with one of those two losses by a single point on the road against Indiana State. Things started coming together; contributions from previously up-and-down freshmen Anthony Beane, Jr. and Jalen Pendelton made a difference.
Jeff Early and Desmar Jackson continued producing as they have all season, though they really found their groove at the end. Early averaged 19.5 points and three steals per game, while Jackson struggled against Evansville and Creighton but still brought home a robust 16.5 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals over the final three games.
Early season injuries and defections put a big dent in the Saluki's season plans, but they have recovered nicely since.
"At one point we only had seven scholarship players," Hinson said. "It's amazing what you can accomplish once you're healthy, once you have some depth to work with."
It will be interesting to see how much the team benefits from such health and depth next season. Early, T.J. Lindsay and backup guard Kendal Brown-Surles will graduate, but the remainder of the roster should return stronger, healthier, and more experienced across the board. That bodes well for Hinson and his team moving forward.