CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When I was introduced to Chris Lowery in SIU Arena Wednesday afternoon, I did a double take. Wearing a black Southern Illinois sweat suit and an ear warmer wrapped around his head, he looked like a player, not a coach.
Actually, he's not all that far removed from his playing career. Lowery was a star point guard for Southern Illinois from 1990 to 1994.
But he's already in his third season as the head coach at SIU -- and right now his Salukis (20-5, 11-3) are tied for first place in the Missouri Valley and ranked No. 20 in the nation.
Page 2's resident college basketball junkie, Kieran Darcy, hits the road for a grassroots tour of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Lowery is just the latest new coach to make a big splash in the Missouri Valley. And Southern Illinois has been a particularly fertile breeding ground for coaches. Just look at its recent history. Bruce Weber was the coach at SIU from 1998 to 2003 before being hired at Illinois. And Matt Painter inherited the SIU job from Weber for one year before being picked as Gene Keady's successor at Purdue.
That's when Lowery was handed the keys in Carbondale. He was just 31 years old at the time, and he'd never been a head coach at any level. But he'd been an assistant under Bruce Weber for Weber's last two seasons at SIU and his first season at Illinois.
The Valley has proven to be fertile ground for coaches like Lowery.
Lowery's coaching philosophy stresses defense first -- an emphasis Lowery says he picked up from working under Weber, who himself picked it up from his many years as an assistant under Keady. And Lowery says he targets recruits who will be willing to lay it all on the line on that end of the floor. "That's Southern Illinois' calling card," said Lowery. "We want to be Floor Burn U. We want our guys to scratch and claw and dive for loose balls. And we want to disrupt people with our defense."
The results? Well, this season Southern Illinois is ranked No. 4 in the country in scoring defense, behind only Princeton, Air Force and Butler. The Salukis are relinquishing just 55.5 points per game.
I got an opportunity to watch Southern Illinois play defense for the second time on my tour Wednesday night, against Bradley. And once again the Salukis were stifling. Bradley came in as the top scoring team in the Valley, averaging 76.5 points per game -- but the Braves managed just 50 points, with SIU winning 60-50. Bradley also led the conference in 3-point shooting, averaging 10 makes per game and connecting on 43.1 percent of its attempts. Wednesday night Bradley shot 3-for-22 from long range.
In the Valley, you don't expect to lose any players to the NBA draft after less than four years. But that's exactly what happened to Bradley, which lost 7-foot center Patrick O'Bryant after its run to the Sweet Sixteen last season.
In fact, the Braves lost their entire nucleus from a season ago. But Bradley coach Jim Les, who -- like Chris Lowery -- is coaching at his alma mater, couldn't be prouder of his team.
"We've had a lot of obstacles to overcome," Les told me after Wednesday night's game. "Nobody thought we could be successful this season. But our guys have been playing with a chip on their shoulder, fighting and scrapping for every win they can get. Our goal was to get to back-to-back postseasons, and we have ourselves in position to do that."
The Braves -- the pride of Peoria, Ill. -- are currently 16-10 overall, 7-7 in the conference. Some SIU fans were chanting "NIT" towards the end of Wednesday night's game -- and that's probably where Bradley's headed this March.
But as their coach said, that's still quite an accomplishment.
"Disrupt" is the perfect word to describe what Southern Illinois does to teams defensively. The Salukis don't apply a full-court team press, but Lowery has his point guard, Bryan Mullins, pick up the opposing team's point guard and defend him the full length of the floor. That can really wear a point guard down and make it difficult for a team to get into its offense. And once a team manages to get into its half-court offense against SIU, it's under constant pressure. Each Salukis defender gets right up in his man's grill when he has the ball. Virtually every pass is contested, let alone every shot. It's rare to see a team get a clean, uncontested shot against Southern Illinois.
And on the offensive end, Lowery's Salukis are extremely disciplined as well. You'll rarely see them take a quick or forced shot. They'll pass the ball around the perimeter looking for an open jumper or for their big men inside, using the majority of the 35-second shot clock in the process. That wears teams down too, having to play defense for that long.
All this is the sign of a very good coach -- Lowery's players clearly buy into his system. It's not easy to motivate players to expend that much energy on defense, or to pass up a decent shot for a better one by someone else. But Lowery's been able to do it.
"You've got to give Lowery a lot of credit," said Tom Davis, who has the sixth most wins among active Division I coaches and who's currently the head man at MVC rival Drake. "He's kept it going at Southern Illinois, maybe even gone beyond the others in some ways. The league has gotten better, yet Southern Illinois has maintained its position at the top."
Davis, the elder statesman of the Missouri Valley, has been impressed by the caliber of coaches he's faced in the Valley since taking over at Drake in 2003. He credits coaching as a big reason for the conference's success. But he also credits the schools' administrations. "Some of these guys are getting offered other attractive jobs, but the administrations are working very hard to retain their head coaches," said Davis. "And if they can't, they're often promoting their assistant coaches, which keeps continuity going within the program."
Drive 4: Springfield, Mo. to Carbondale, Ill.
"Longevity and continuity are the keys to success," Missouri State coach Barry Hinson said to me on Tuesday. "Elevating an assistant keeps recruits in the fold that might otherwise go elsewhere."
Some of the top Valley schools have been able to retain their head coaches, despite other offers. Dana Altman's in his 13th year at Creighton, Hinson's in his eighth at Missouri State, Mark Turgeon's in his seventh at Wichita State. Defections still happen -- for instance, after last season Greg McDermott made the jump from Northern Iowa to Iowa State. But UNI promoted Ben Jacobson, a McDermott assistant just a tad older than Lowery, and he's got the Panthers contending for an NCAA bid in his first season.
Lowery seems very content at SIU at the moment. He's a beloved figure in this college town of 20,000 people. And the affection is clearly mutual. "We have a great tradition here at Southern Illinois, and I've been fortunate to be here as both a player and a coach," Lowery said. "We have a legit chance to be in the top 25 every year here. I just want to push it even further, and get this program in the best situation that I can."
Will Lowery leave someday? More likely than not.
But after spending a few days in the Valley, I can understand why he might stay.
COMING FRIDAY: Last call
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.