Salukis silence crowd, potential critics

Matt Goul

Bracket Buster provides tournament feel

Jay Youngblood jumps to shoot against a Southern Illinois player during the game between Kent State and Southern Illinois Saturday night at the M.A.C. Center. Kent State fell 54-65.

Credit: Matt Goul

Southern Illinois (22-6) is one of the best teams Kent State will face all season.

Its ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index, which the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses religiously in setting its field, was 14th going into this weekend. Only Boston College, which was fifth, is better among Kent State’s opponents. Both should be locks for the NCAA Tournament, regardless if they win their conference’s automatic bid or not.

“I’m not on the selection committee, but that’s a great basketball team,” Kent State coach Jim Christian said. “They have all the ingredients you’d want. They have an RPI that’s off the chart. They win on the road; they win a lot of big games. To me, they are an NCAA Tournament team.”

Saturday’s Bracket Buster game may have had little effect on either Kent State’s or Southern Illinois’ tournament potential. The Flashes’ is set. Win the Mid-American Conference tournament or possibly settle for another year in the National Invitation Tournament.

Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery still likes the Bracket Buster. Christian does, too. But Lowery said the matchups put on by ESPN do more for preparing teams for a tournament environment than getting them into one.

“I think this is an NCAA Tournament game for us,” Lowery said. “We get a one-time deal with somebody who we haven’t seen a lot and don’t get a lot of time to prepare for. The atmosphere’s great, and it’s hostile.”

This was the Salukis’ first Bracket Buster game on the road in three years.

That alone could help in the tournament preparation Lowery likes. Playing in front of a crowd with a screaming student section helps that, too, especially a hostile one on the road.

“Their crowd really got into it,” guard Darren Brooks said. “It really motivated them, and their adrenaline got going. They just played with a lot more confidence during that stretch. Once we made a few shots, they kind of settled back down.”

As Jay Youngblood gave Kent State its first lead and DeAndre Haynes hit the Flashes’ first 3 midway through the second half, the decibels increased. It was Southern Illinois’ 11-point run to retake the lead for good which silenced the crowd.

Lowery said the M.A.C. Center was as loud as any arena his team has played in all season.

“We fed off them a lot, especially coming back,” Youngblood said. “It’s always a pleasure to feed off the crowd. They always give us energy; we got to do it ourselves and play our game.”

He admitted the need to keep the crowd for the last two home games. Saturday’s attendance of 6,023 was the highest of the season. But it was the first Bracket Buster game Kent State did not sell out.

Contact men’s basketball reporter Matt Goul at [email protected].