The Southern Illinois University Salukis figured to be strong this season anyway as they returned quite a bit of talent from last year's 16-14 team.
But the addition of Rolan Roberts has obviously pushed the Salukis to a whole different level.
Roberts, a powerhouse of an inside presence at 6-feet-6 and 250 pounds, will be just one of many SIU players Southeast Missouri State University will have to be wary of when the squads square off this afternoon at the SIU Arena.
SIU, which is off to its best start since 1993-94, comes into the contest with an 8-2 record, although the Salukis did lose their last game, an 80-62 setback at Colorado State Tuesday night. Southeast, which is off to its worst start since 1950-51, is 1-7.
"Southern Illinois really has a great basketball team this year and needless to say it's going to be a really tough game for us," said Southeast coach Gary Garner.
Roberts has been tough on just about every SIU opponent so far this season. A three-year starter at Virginia Tech who averaged in double figures in scoring all three seasons, Roberts left the Hokies' program two years ago and transferred to SIU, where he had to sit out last season under NCAA transfer rules.
The powerful senior has certainly made his presence felt for the Salukis, averaging 11.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 54.4 percent from the field. He helped spark SIU's impressive 72-60 win over Indiana recently with seven blocked shots and he has 25 blocks on the season.
A big addition to a strong team
"They were going to be good anyway, but I think the addition of Roberts has really elevated them several notches," Garner said. "He is a heck of a player, really big and strong. He's really made them a much better team."
As mentioned earlier, however, Roberts is only one reason why the Salukis are quickly making their mark as one of the nation's surprise -- and better -- teams this season.
In addition to the victory over Indiana -- which came in front of a sellout crowd of 10,000 at the SIU Arena -- SIU has also won at St. Louis, beaten Iowa State in a tournament in Las Vegas and lost by just three points to ninth-ranked Illinois in the championship game of that tourney.
It's no wonder, then, that SIU is threatening to crack the national top 25 for the first time in more than 20 years. The Salukis are unofficially ranked 27th this week by The Associated Press as they received the second most votes of teams outside the top 25.
"They are very good," Garner said. "They are better than Indiana and Iowa State. Sometimes you beat a team like that and you can say it was just one game, but they are better than those teams. I think they're a legitimate top 20 team."
While Roberts has been a major addition for SIU, their leading scorer is a veteran Saluki. Junior guard Kent Williams, already a three-year starter, is averaging 17.3 points per game while shooting 43.6 percent from 3-point range.
Another SIU veteran, 6-8 junior Jermaine Dearman, is also scoring double figures at 11.4 points per game and he's the team's leading rebounder at 7.3 a contest.
Another solid scorer has been freshman guard Darren Brooks, who comes off the bench to contribute 10 points a game.
"Roberts and Dearman inside are very athletic, their guards shoot the ball well and they have experience at every position," said Garner. "They have all the ingredients to be a great basketball team. They're the best team we'll play."
Southeast beat SIU last year 87-84 in Cape Girardeau, but a look at the box score from that game pretty much tells the story of why the teams are having such different kinds of seasons.
The Indians returned players who scored four points in last year's contest, two by Drew DeMond and two by Monte Gordon, but Gordon is currently sidelined with a racing heart that plagued him most of last season.
Meanwhile, SIU returned players who scored 50 points against Southeast last year, led by Williams with 27.