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Indians try to end SIU's perfect start under new head coach
It hasn't taken Matt Painter long to make his mark on Southern Illinois University basketball.
Despite losing the top two players off a second straight NCAA Tournament team last season, SIU's rookie head coach has the Salukis off to a 3-0 start, making him the first SIU men's basketball coach to win his first three games.
"It's important that we won three games in a row; it's not important to me to earn that honor," Painter said. "But we are really pleased with the way we've started the season."
Southeast Missouri State University (3-1) gets a crack at not only handing Painter his first loss but also ending SIU's 28-game home winning streak when the squads square off tonight at 7:05 p.m. in Carbondale. The Salukis own the nation's second-longest current home winning streak and can tie Duke for No. 1 with a victory.
"They haven't lost at home in more than two years," Southeast coach Gary Garner said. "It's a huge challenge for us."
What makes the Salukis' start particularly impressive is that two of their wins were at Wyoming and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a pair of highly regarded teams who were favored to beat SIU. The Salukis' other victory was a 35-point home mauling of Ohio Valley Conference newcomer Jacksonville State.
"To win at both Wyoming and Milwaukee was huge for us," Painter said. "But we have a lot of older guys, a lot of guys who have been through the wars, and they have done a very good job of playing together so far."
Top assistant during Weber eraPainter, who at 33 is the third-youngest head coach in the 90-year history of SIU men's basketball, was Bruce Weber's top assistant the past five seasons. So when Weber left for Illinois, the transition to Painter was smooth.
"Obviously when you win that helps, but our guys understand what this coaching staff wants. It's not very different from what we did before," Painter said.
SIU went 24-7 last year and lost by one point to Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but leading scorers Kent Williams and Jermaine Dearman completed their eligibility.
The Salukis, however, haven't missed a beat, largely because they returned three starters -- including talented junior guards Darren Brooks and Stetson Hairston, who both averaged in double figures last year -- and several top reserves.
Brooks leads the way so far this season at 19 points per game. Senior forward Brad Korn (12.3) and junior forward LaMar Owen (10.3) are next.
"They're a very experienced basketball team. They're playing right now like we expect to be playing in January and February," Garner said. "They're playing with a lot of confidence. To go into both Wyoming and Milwaukee and win is really good.
"Brooks is a great player and they've got four very athletic guards. The biggest thing to the game is how we handle their defensive pressure."
SIU has won nine of the last 10 meetings with Southeast, the Indians' last victory over the Salukis coming at the Show Me Center during the 2000-2001 season. The last Southeast win at the SIU Arena was in 1982.
A year ago, the Salukis romped 85-69 at the Show Me Center and they also had little trouble with the Indians two seasons ago in Carbondale. Off to their best start since that 2000-2001 campaign, the Indians appear better equipped to at least make SIU sweat for a change.
"We have better players this year so we feel like we've got a chance, but we're going to have to play extremely well," Garner said.
Said junior guard Brett Hale, "This is probably the best chance we've had against them since I've been here, but they're a great team and we know we're going to have to play really good."
Painter said he has plenty of respect for the improvement the Indians have made -- particularly the addition of junior forward Dainmon Gonner, the team's early scoring leader at 12.8 points per game, just ahead of junior guard Derek Winans (10.0) -- and doesn't expect potential home win No. 29 in a row to come easily.
"No question they've made improvements," Painter said. "Gonner really gives matchup problems, they've added other good players and they've got experienced guys like Winans, Hale and Griffin, who we could not guard at their place last year. They have a really good mix.
"SEMO beat us two years ago and we know they're going to be ready for us. We have our hands full."
Brandon Griffin, the Indians' senior center, had 22 points and 11 rebounds in last year's loss to SIU.