CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Three coaches in three seasons usually indicates a college basketball program is in shambles. Not so at Southern Illinois, where the Salukis are picked to win their fourth straight Missouri Valley Conference championship under new coach Chris Lowery.
Lowery returns to Carbondale after a one-year absence spent assisting former SIU coach Bruce Weber at Illinois. When Matt Painter resigned to become Gene Keady's successor-in-waiting at Purdue, it only took a day for SIU athletic director Paul Kowalczyk to bring Lowery back.
"I wasn't looking to find someone to come in and change the formula," Kowalczyk said about a team coming off its third straight 20-win season and third straight trip to the NCAA tournament. "He was a natural choice."
It's the second homecoming for Lowery, 32, who played at SIU from 1990-94 and is still third in career assists. He returned first in 2001 as Weber's assistant and is responsible for recruiting many of the players now on the team.
"It's like I never left," Lowery said. "It's good to be home and be able to coach where you played."
While the players have had to adjust to the personalities of three head coaches in just over two years, not much has changed on the court. Painter and Lowery are Weber disciples.
"As far as strategies and concepts, everything's the same," says guard Darren Brooks, last season's MVC player of the year. "Conditioning's the same. Practice is the same. So everything should be the same with us."
The Salukis won the conference championship with a 17-1 record last season, but they finished the season with losses to Southwest Missouri in the conference tournament semifinals and Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Reporters who cover the conference have picked SIU to win the regular-season conference title again.
Brooks, a senior, led SIU and the conference in scoring last season at 16.5 points per game, earning honorable mention on the Associated Press All-America team. But he does more than score.
"He does a lot of things with the ball and without the ball," Lowery said. "He's the foundation for a lot of things we do, but we have other guys who can make plays, too."
One of those other players is senior guard Stetson Hairston, who averaged about nine points per game and had 47 steals last season. But he is awaiting trial on charges arising out of a fight in Carbondale last July and has been suspended at least until his case is resolved, Lowery said.
Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young will run with Brooks in the three-guard offense until Hairston returns. Tatum, a sophomore, was on the MVC All-Freshman team last season, averaging about eight points per game.
Last year's starting frontcourt of 6-9 forward Brad Korn and 6-7 center Sylvester Willis finished their eligibility. Forward LaMar Owen, last season's MVC Sixth Man of the Year, and center Joshua Warren return and are joined by redshirt freshmen Randal Falker, who's 6-7, and 6-10 Jamaal Foster.
"They're going to be nervous," Lowery said. "They just have to get some game-time experience."
SIU opens its regular season Nov. 21 against Augustana.
On the Net: http://www.siusalukis.com