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Round two: SIU vs. Illinois?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

(Photo)
Southern Illinois head coach Chris Lowery has led the Salukis to a 27-6 record and a No. 4 seed in the West Regional.
(TOM GANNAM ~ Associated Press)
In the three years since Chris Lowery took over at Southern Illinois following Bruce Weber's defection to Illinois, die-hard fans have clamored, often nastily, for a bragging rights matchup between two of the state's biggest schools.

Those fans finally will get their wish, if SIU ousts Holy Cross and Illinois bounces Virginia Tech on Friday in their West regional openers of the NCAA tournament.

But don't ask Lowery about the Illini just yet.

"That's not even on our minds," the newly crowned Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year told reporters during a conference call Monday. "Us versus Illinois is more for the fans, the alumni. People are excited about that. But if we lose, there is no game. So obviously our focus is totally on Holy Cross."

The Salukis (27-6) on Monday began boning up on the 13th-seeded Crusaders (25-8) from Worcester, Mass., who won the Patriot League with a 13-1 record and snatched an automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament by beating Bucknell in their conference tournament's final last Friday.

The game promises to be a slugfest. SIU, holding its highest seed ever in the NCAA tournament and ranked No. 14 in the latest Associated Press poll released Monday, has the nation's third-stingiest defense, allowing just 56.5 points, while the Crusaders yield just 57.1 points, sixth lowest in the country. Both teams are offensively challenged; Holy Cross averages 64.2 points, SIU 63.3.

"We're definitely not going to underestimate them," said Saluki guard Jamaal Tatum, the Missouri Valley's player of the year. "When you put two mid-major teams together like that, you know you're going to have a dogfight."

If the Salukis prevail and match a 5-year-old school record for wins in a season, they would play Sunday either against fifth-seeded Virginia Tech -- a team they beat 69-64 in November in the fifth-place game of Disney World's Old Spice Classic -- or 12th-seeded Illinois and Weber, the guy Lowery succeeded in Carbondale, Ill.

While "it'd be great" to play Illinois, "we never let our kids get ahead of themselves, and I'm not going to do it now," Lowery said.

A possible reason: Holy Cross has given far bigger schools fits in recent years.

The Crusaders, winners of 18 of their last 20 games, have made the tournament four times in the past seven seasons, losing by four points both to Kentucky in 2001 and Marquette two years later. The year in between, Holy Cross used a matchup zone to befuddle Kansas before falling 70-59, narrowly missing out on becoming the first No. 16 seed to knock out a top seed in the first round.

"We've been in three NCAA tournaments, and we had opportunities to win all three games against Kansas, Kentucky and Marquette," Crusaders coach Ralph Willard said. "Defense will give us the opportunity to win against teams that are more athletic."

Lowery described the Crusaders as well-coached, a threat from 3-point range and capable of mixing defenses. Beyond that, he noted, "obviously they're in a different region than us, so we don't get to watch them as much as we'd hoped."

What he does know is that the Salukis are under greater scrutiny this tournament.

"We've been ranked, we've had a higher RPI, we've had a little more national notoriety, and the pressure will be a lot greater knowing that we are a four seed," Lowery said. "Hopefully, we can make sure our kids stay competitive and stay focused."

Holy Cross is led by Patriot League player of the year Keith Simmons, a 6-foot-5 senior guard averaging 17.3 points and nearly 5.8 rebounds, and his backcourt mate, Torey Thomas (13.6 points, 4.8 rebounds). The Crusaders don't have much depth, having relied on six players the past several games.


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