A 1-3 start to the basketball season is not exactly what Southeast Missouri State University coach Gary Garner hoped for, but it also was not really unexpected.
Southeast was an underdog in its three road games so far -- against Bradley, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Western Kentucky -- and lost all three contests, including two by four points.
"You always want to win every game, but before we started the season, I'd hoped we could be 2-2 in those first four games," Garner said. "But 1-3 isn't really that bad, because we've lost to three good teams on the road."
Garner, however, knows it's important for Southeast to make a push right now because its next four games are at home, beginning with tonight's 7:30 p.m. contest against South Dakota State (1-4).
Also coming to the Show Me Center in the next two weeks will be Montana (Dec. 9), Central Methodist (Dec. 11) and Southern Illinois (Dec. 18).
"This is a really big homestand for us," Garner said. "We really need to do well. We're 1-3 now, but if we do well in these next four games, then we'll be in pretty good shape again."
Said senior forward Reggie Golson: "We need to get some wins at home. These games coming up are important for us."
For Southeast to have a successful homestand, winning tonight is a must, and Southeast should be favored over first-year Division I program South Dakota State.
But Garner knows probably more than most coaches just how potentially dangerous an opponent the Jackrabbits could be.
South Dakota State fielded one of the nation's premier Division II programs the past decade, averaging more than 20 wins per season and making eight national tournament appearances. The Jackrabbits went 27-7 last year.
Garner is a former national Division II coach of the year, as he led Fort Hays (Kan.) State to a national championship before coming to Southeast, so he realizes the Jackrabbits will have a considerable amount of talent.
"They were one of the best Division II teams in the nation, and I know that some of the better Division II teams can beat a lot of Division I teams," Garner said. "Being in their first year in Division I, they've had to go on the road for some tough games and they've kind of gotten beat down, so their record isn't very good, but I think they'll be a very competitive team."
The Jackrabbits' losses, all on the road, have been to Butler (80-52), Manhattan (73-69), Illinois-Chicago (80-66) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (89-54). Their lone win was at home against Mayville State (87-51).
"Manhattan is a very good team and they played them to the wire. Illinois-Chicago is a really good team and they played them tough," Garner said. "I don't look for an easy game at all."
South Dakota State has plenty of size, including 6-foot-11 senior center Jared DeJong in the middle, although he averages just 7.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
The Jackrabbits' top scorers are 6-5 freshman forward Steve Holdren (15.2 ppg) and 6-7 sophomore forward Ben Beran (11.0 ppg).
Southeast's injury-depleted roster should receive a boost tonight by the return of senior guards Brett Hale and Derek Winans.
Hale, Southeast's third-leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, missed Wednesday's 74-53 loss at Western Kentucky after receiving three stitches on his left ring finger following a practice accident in which he took a ball off the finger.
"It was just real tender, but I should be able to play [tonight]," Hale said.
Winans, Southeast's leading scorer the past three seasons, has not yet seen game action because of a stress fracture in his left leg. But he returned to practice this week, and Garner said he hopes to play Winans some tonight, perhaps as much as 10 or 12 minutes.
"It's going to be good to hopefully have Derek and Brett back on the floor," Garner said.
Senior forward Dainmon Gonner (22.3 ppg) and Golson (16.5 ppg) join Hale as Southeast's three double-figure scorers so far.
But probably having Southeast's best performance during Wednesday's blowout at Western Kentucky was junior center Waylon Francis. The junior college transfer scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds, both career highs for his young Southeast tenure.
"Waylon had really been upset with himself about the way he'd been playing and it was good to see him have a game like that," Garner said. "He's just a tremendous young man and he wants to do so well."