Salukis focus on retaining coach

Friday, March 30, 2007

Coach Lowery's future remains uncertain at his alma mater.

Amid all the questions of what might have been in the wake of a season-ending loss to Kansas, Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery had plenty of reasons to feel puffed up about how far his Salukis came this season.

A school-record 29 wins. The program's highest seed ever in the NCAA tournament, not to mention a sixth-straight berth in that yearly spectacle. An ascent to No. 11 in The Associated Press poll, the loftiest ranking in the program's history. A fifth Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title in the past six seasons.

Lowery and his charges would have loved to have added the school's first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament's round of eight to the list. But the top-seeded Jayhawks dashed that, edging fourth-seeded Southern 61-58 in the West Regional semifinals Thursday in San Jose, Calif.

The loss marked the end to the collegiate careers of seniors Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young, the linchpins of a smothering Saluki defense that was among the stingiest in the country.

The nagging question now: Will Lowery be leaving his alma mater, too?

Southern's run through its league and to the school's third appearance in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 triggered widespread interest in Lowery, at 34 the youngest coach in the event's field. And though he has two years left on his contact in Carbondale, Ill., that hasn't stopped his name from being tossed around with various coaching vacancies at bigger, higher-profile schools.

In the run-up to the Kansas game, Lowery waved off questions about his future at Southern, saying his immediate priority was prepping for the Jayhawks. He wouldn't discuss it after Thursday's loss, either.

"I'm the coach of Southern Illinois right now. That's the most important thing," said Lowery, the reigning Missouri Valley coach of the year -- an award he now has won twice in his three seasons guiding Southern, where he has gone 78-26.

The apparent coveting of Lowery hasn't been lost on Tatum or the coach's boss, Saluki athletics director Mario Moccia.

"I know a lot of schools are going to be trying to get him right now," Tatum, the Missouri Valley player of the year, told reporters Thursday night after the Salukis lost for just the second time in 17 games. But, said Tatum, "He ain't going nowhere. Ain't that right, Mario?"

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