- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's supposed to be a collection of college basketball's most attractive and tastiest squads; they wouldn't have named the final quartet of quartets the Sweet 16 if it weren't.
But there's nothing sugary or pretty about the way Southern Illinois plays ball. The regular-season champions of the Missouri Valley play at one of the nation's slowest, nastiest paces and own the nation's third-stingiest team points-allowed average at 56.3. After dispatching Virginia Tech 63-48 in a second-round sludgefest, SIU is the sour part of this Sweet 16, the chocolate filled with rusty thumbtacks in the heart-shaped box.
"They ought to call it the Mean 16 now," shouted senior guard Jamaal Tatum in the tunnels after the game. "Yeah, we're makin' it the Mean 16."
The West Regional's top seed and next Thursday's opponent, the Kansas Jayhawks, will have to figure out how to penetrate SIU's relentlessly cruel and physical defense, which has yielded only 49.5 points per game in its first two NCAA contests. On Sunday, the Saluki nasty boyz held their opponents to just 20 first-half points, Virginia Tech's 48 total points were its lowest output of the season, and SIU erased any Hokies hopes for a perimeter game by allowing only two of Tech's 13 3-pointers to fall.
But the real nastiness came when the Salukis were on offense. By doubling down in the post, Virginia Tech left Southern Illinois' guards plenty of room to operate -- every time Tech thought about building a second-half run, Tatum, point guard Bryan Mullins or 2-guard Tony Young would deliver a dagger-sharp 3-ball straight to the Hokies' hearts, including several that came right as the shot clock expired.
"I think everyone knows us for our defense, but people don't realize we can score," said Mullins, who finished with 11 points on 3-for-5 shooting. "You can only do so much with defense, your offense has got to take over too."
And Tatum, the Salukis' leading scorer (14.9 ppg), did quite a bit of taking over -- his game-high 21 points included six of SIU's season-high 13 made 3s. This wasn't the first time the MVC Player of the Year haunted Virginia Tech -- when the two teams met in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando on Nov. 26, Tatum scored 16 points, including a game-winning 3 with 24 seconds left to ice a 69-64 victory.
"I actually think the two games were very similar," Tatum said. "Close-fought games. We came out and played hard defense. I think the biggest difference this time was our bench. In Orlando, our starters logged some heavy minutes, but today our bench players came in and gave us a big spark. They did a great job."
Indeed, even though only five SIU players logged points in the scorebook, a big key for the Salukis was solid backup play. Coach Chris Lowery generally runs an eight-man rotation in which the three backups average only about 15 minutes per contest, so depth was an issue coming into the NCAA Tournament. But on Sunday, Lowery squeezed a solid performance out of Wesley Clemmons -- who hit a 3 with 12 minutes left that stretched the lead to double figures -- as well as 24 minutes of brick-wall defense out of junior guard Tyrone Green.
And because of a lingering ankle injury suffered by third-leading scorer Matt Shaw in Friday night's opener against Holy Cross, first-round hero Tony Boyle was placed in the starting lineup. The 6-foot-8 sophomore notched four rebounds, but didn't come close to matching the career high of 14 points he put up Friday -- not scoring a single point in 20 minutes of action. But he boxed out to create a Tatum rebound opportunity, forced two Hokie field goal misses with outstretched arms, and forced a jump ball with a power grab, all items the NCAA hasn't created trackable stats for yet.
"I'm still a role player, and my game is still developing," said soft-spoken yet intensely physical Boyle. "I'm happy with what I contributed, and this experience is going to be great for me going forward."
Another key intangible was the Salukis' ability to shorten the game with long possessions. In most games, a nine-point lead with 10 minutes left in regulation is a bridgeable deficit, but when the Salukis are on the floor, it can seem like an insurmountable blowout. If most human years are equivalent to seven dog years, one point in a Salukis game must be equivalent to at least five elsewhere -- call it the principle of "dawg points."
"That's because we don't score," senior forward Randal Falker, who double-doubled with 10 points and 12 rebounds, said without cracking a smile. "Naww, we're just all about clock management. We don't give up quick easy shots or a lot of transition stuff, so we get up 10 and that becomes a nice lead. We're just used to being in tight situations, and we're always confident that Jamaal and Tony are going to step up and make big shots."
And once the Salukis had used a barrage of free throws to push the gap to 13 points with eight minutes to go, the confident fans behind the Salukis bench began to exhale. Not too long thereafter, a "San Jo-se!" chant went up, celebrating Southern Illinois' next destination. They'll bring a wheelbarrow full of milestones out west with them: a school-record 29th overall victory, the first MVC win over an ACC school at the tournament since 1975 (when Louisville was a member) and SIU's third trip to the Sweet 16.
"It's a sweet feeling to be there," Tatum said. "But we don't want it to end, we want to keep pushing."
Truth be told, those emotions are the only things about any of this that are sweet. In every other way, the Salukis are like rock candy made out of actual rocks.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.