- Jeff Shelman
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Lowery got big money to stayBrian Bahr/Getty ImagesNow that Chris Lowery got the money to stay in Carbondale, Ill., Randal Falker & Co. have to put up the results on the court.
The question was out there last season. Actually, there were two questions.
When was Chris Lowery going to leave Southern Illinois? And where was he going to end up?
It didn't matter what Lowery said as the Salukis worked their way through the 2006-07 season and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Part of it was the recent history in Carbondale as Bruce Weber and Matt Painter went directly from leading the Salukis to coaching in the Big Ten. And part of it was the fact that Southern Illinois didn't seem to be a place that had the resources (translation: cash money) to convince a coach to stay.
"With all the rumors going on about whether I was going or staying, it was a tough time for me," Lowery said. "My own players were suffering, my family was suffering, our recruiting was suffering."
But then something funny happened: Southern Illinois signed Lowery to a seven-year contract worth roughly $750,000 per year.
And now, Southern Illinois has as much stability as it has had in some time.
There are certainly no guarantees that a big contract means a coach is going to stay for an extended period. After all, Mark Turgeon left Wichita State a year after signing a large contract.
At the same time, Lowery now won't have to worry about taking a bad job just because the paycheck could set up his family financially.
"I'm able to make BCS money in an environment I'm comfortable with," said Lowery, who played for the Salukis in the early '90s.
He has also provided Southern Illinois with some newfound stability. Instead of trying to simply maintain the program -- even though that has been successful -- the Salukis are in position to move forward.
In short order, Southern Illinois has made progress in terms of its facility and its recruiting, two crucial factors for any program.
Last month, the Carbondale city council approved a half-cent sales tax increase. While much of the money will go for infrastructure, the city will provide $1 million per year for the next 20 years to the school. That money will be used in part to help remodel SIU Arena.
"We're going to get a film room, we're going to get a meeting room, we're going to get a coaches' locker room," Lowery said. "We're going to have everything some of the bigger programs have."
While it's unclear whether Lowery remaining with the Salukis impacted the vote, it is clear that stability has helped Southern Illinois in recruiting. Because of NCAA rules, Lowery can't talk about recruits until they sign letters of intent, but the Salukis are in the process of landing a very strong player.
Anthony Booker is a 6-foot-8 power forward from the St. Louis area. He's one of the top high school seniors in the country. And he has committed to play at Southern Illinois. Booker could certainly change his mind between now and signing day, but he would be a huge get for Southern Illinois.
"We're in on kids where it's us and all high-end schools," Lowery said. "That's taken six years to get to that. When we went to the Sweet 16 in 2002, it was like people were saying, 'All right, let's see you do it again.'"
One final thing that has changed is how the Salukis will play this season. During Southern Illinois' recent run, the Salukis were strong on the perimeter and a bit undersized inside. Things will be different this season.
With Randal Falker, Matt Shaw and Tony Boyle all returning, SIU will have one of the most experienced and strongest frontcourts in the MVC. Point guard Bryan Mullins returns to run the point, but the other two guard positions are expected to be rather inexperienced.
Lowery acknowledges that the combination of size up front and a little inexperience on the perimeter means he and his staff may have to run different sets and work on scoring points in different ways.
But Lowery is doing it as the Southern Illinois coach, something that wasn't necessarily a given a season ago.
Can the Valley keep it up?
In many ways, the Missouri Valley Conference has become something of a college basketball darling. The teams in the league are well coached, there's great fan support and the league produces very good teams. While the past two seasons have been very good for the league -- the league has received six NCAA Tournament invitations and produced three Sweet 16 teams in that span -- the conference's history of success goes deeper than that.
The Valley has been a multibid league for each of the past nine seasons. In the process, the conference has separated itself from many others.
But can the Valley keep up this recent run?
This season is certainly one of change for the Valley. Only five of the league's top 15 scorers return. Southern Illinois' Randal Falker is the only first-team all-conference selection back.
Some significant turnovers
Valley commissioner Doug Elgin has said that some of the league's success has been the result of coaching stability. After the 2004-05 season produced three MVC teams in the NCAA tourney, not a single coaching position turned over. The end of the 2005-06 season came and went and only Northern Iowa lost its coach.
This season? Different story.
Half of the league will have new coaches. Keno Davis replaces his father, Tom, at Drake; Marty Simmons replaces Steve Merfeld at Evansville; Tim Jankovich is the new Illinois State coach after Porter Moser wasn't retained; Kevin McKenna takes over for Royce Waltman at Indiana State; and Gregg Marshall has Mark Turgeon's old job at Wichita State.
And if Dana Altman had stayed at Arkansas for more than 15 minutes, the league would have had six new coaches.
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
Fast break Bradley
Talk about having to blend together a bunch of new parts. Braves coach Jim Les has seven new players to work with. Four of them -- forward Rashad Austin, guard Tyrone Cole-Scott, center David Collins and wing Theron Wilson -- are junior college transfers. While Bradley fans will need a program to figure out who's who, it doesn't mean that the Braves don't have anything back. Guards Jeremy Crouch and Daniel Ruffin are the Missouri Valley's top returning scorers after averaging 13.8 points per game a season ago.
While the Bluejays have been as steady as any Missouri Valley program over the past decade, this season will be a significant challenge for Dana Altman. Creighton is going to have to replace more than 75 percent of its scoring and 65 percent of its rebounding. Only four players -- Dane Watts, Nick Bahe, Pierce Hibma and Josh Dotzler -- were in Altman's nine-deep rotation a season ago. One player who should play a bigger role is Kenny Lawson Jr., who played only two games last season because of knee problems. Louisville transfer Chad Millard is one of four Creighton players who redshirted last season.
The good news is that Drake went 17-15 last season and registered its first winning season in 20 years. The bad news is that there aren't many faces left from that team. Four starters are gone and coach Tom Davis has retired. But don't expect the Bulldogs' style of play to change. Between Keno Davis, the son of the former coach, taking over the Drake program and the fact that only two players are taller than 6-6, the Bulldogs are still going to press, try to play fast and shoot 3-pointers. Sophomore guard Josh Young is going to have to continue to do some heavy lifting for Drake. A member of the Valley's all-newcomer team, Young played at least 28 minutes in Drake's final 12 games.
No coach in the Missouri Valley has a more difficult job than new Evansville coach Marty Simmons. While Evansville has a strong basketball tradition, victories have been difficult to come by of late. The Aces haven't posted a winning season since the 1999-2000 campaign, and former coach Steve Merfeld went just 54-91 and 29-61 in Valley play. The one thing Simmons has going for him is that he is part of the Evansville tradition. Simmons played two standout seasons at Evansville and was later an assistant coach under Jim Crews. Simmons takes the job after spending five years as the head coach at Division II Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. During his final three seasons there, Edwardsville went 63-29, reaching the NCAA Tournament twice.
In a conference in which many teams have significant holes to fill, new Redbirds coach Tim Jankovich inherits a team that returns five of its top six scorers. Included in that group is 6-11 Levi Dyer, the Valley's most improved player; MVC freshman of the year Osiris Eldridge; and all-newcomer team members Boo Richardson and Anthony Slack. In the spring, Jankovich added some frontcourt help in the form of junior college transfer Brandon Sampay, who had originally committed to play at Wichita State.
Call this hiring an example of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. When Royce Waltman's contract was not renewed, the Sycamores plucked Creighton assistant Kevin McKenna as Indiana State's next head coach. A former Creighton player, McKenna had a pair of stints as an assistant to Dana Altman with a head coaching job at Division II Nebraska-Omaha in between. Last season, seven players averaged at least 15 minutes of playing time for the Sycamores. Six of those players return. That team, however, had something of a split personality. Early in the season, Indiana State beat eventual NCAA Tournament teams Butler and Purdue. But then the Sycamores closed the season by losing 14 of 16 games.
Think all that matters in college basketball is the NCAA Tournament? Apparently the regular season doesn't mean all that much to the Missouri State administration. Because while Barry Hinson has led the Bears to 82 victories over the past four years, he was nearly fired over the offseason in part because Missouri State was among the last few teams left out of the tournament each of the past two years. Still employed, Hinson is going to have to coach without Blake Ahearn. Deven Mitchell (10.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg) was the Valley's top sixth man, but his role will have to expand. Spencer Laurie (5.9 ppg, 4.3 apg) was the league's newcomer of the year. The Bears will have four seniors in their rotation, something that's rarely a bad thing.
One of Ben Jacobson's biggest goals in his second season as a head coach is finding some consistency. That's because the Panthers were all over the board last season. There was a 13-2 start, but the Panthers also lost eight out of nine at one point during the season. One key member of the Panthers will be sophomore point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe. Ahelegbe averaged about 14 minutes per game as a reserve. With Brooks McKowen gone, Ahelegbe will be UNI's primary ball handler and will have to improve on his 1.1 assists for every turnover. Carlton Reed should help Northern Iowa create offense, something that was a challenge at times last season. The transfer from Iowa can put the ball on the floor and attack the basket.
A true big man is something of a rarity in the Missouri Valley. But it's clear that Salukis coach Chris Lowery has made securing size a recruiting priority. Two of Southern Illinois' freshman -- 6-8 Carlton Fay and 6-11 Nick Evans -- are frontcourt players. Going against Randal Falker, Matt Shaw and Tony Boyle every day in practice, Fay and Evans should be better prepared a season from now when they are going to have to play bigger roles.
Of the five new coaches in the league, Gregg Marshall comes into the Valley with the highest profile. Marshall led Winthrop to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in nine years. He takes over a Wichita State program that reached the Sweet 16 of the 2006 NCAA Tournament but failed to live up to expectations last season. After starting last season 9-0, the Shockers went 8-14 the rest of the way and closed on a five-game losing streak. Marshall's first Wichita State team will be small and inexperienced. Of last season's top five scorers, only P.J. Couisnard (11.8 ppg) returns. In addition, the eligibility of recruit Ehimen Orupke -- a 7-footer from Nigeria -- is up in the air. The Shockers could end up with only one player taller than 6-7 on the roster.
A big boost?
One story worth watching in the Valley is whether Northern Iowa benefits from being the U.S.'s representative in the World University Games. In previous years, USA Basketball selected an all-star team for the World University Games, but this time it simply sent the Panthers.
The Panthers didn't earn a medal at the World University Games and finished ninth, but they did win five consecutive games after losing their opener to Lithuania.
How much will this help Northern Iowa? The experience certainly won't hurt. The Panthers got extra practice time over the summer, they played some quality competition, and coach Ben Jacobson got more experience.
No more Arch madness?
Certainly nothing has been decided, but the Missouri Valley in considering moving its conference tourney from St. Louis after this season. The league is accepting requests for proposals from St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and Chicago.
The facilities in Kansas City, Des Moines and Omaha are all under construction or are very new. Chicago apparently wants the Valley to take the place of the Big Ten, which has opted to move its event on a full-time basis to Indianapolis.
Early 2007-08 Bracketology
The Valley has started to establish itself as a multibid mid-major league of late. Last season, the Valley sent Creighton and Southern Illinois to the Dance. Who will be representing the conference this season?
-- Joe Lunardi
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here for the archive.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Southern Illinois is making the financial commitment -- to both the program and coach Chris Lowery -- to continue to be one of the best mid-majors in the country, writes Jeff Shelman.