Southern Illinois is mid-major surprise


Saint Joseph's and Gonzaga have attracted a great deal of attention this season being among the nation's top ranked teams, but there's another mid-major conference school that could make its share of noise in next month's NCAA tournament.

At 21-2, including 15-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, Southern Illinois is one of the country's big surprises. The Salukis were picked to finish fifth in the conference after losing their coach and their two leading scorers.

"Everybody had a chip on our shoulders," said junior guard Darren Brooks, the team's leading scorer this season. "It made us eager to work harder and prove everybody wrong."

Yet even Matt Painter, the 33-year-old coach who took over the program last May when Bruce Weber left for Illinois, is a bit amazed at what his team, currently ranked 20th in the country, has accomplished.

"At the start of the season, I felt we could compete with any team on our schedule," Painter said earlier this week. "The thing that's probably shocked me and my staff the most is the fact that we've been able to play so well on the road."

With Wednesday's 84-69 win at Evansville, the Salukis have an 11-1 road record that includes victories at Wyoming and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (an NCAA tournament team last season) as well as MVC power Creighton.

"It just shows our guys' character," Painter said. "They've played with great poise the whole season."

Painter has taken an interesting route to his first head coaching job. After graduating from Purdue, where he was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick as a senior, Painter tried unsuccessfully to hook on as a graduate assistant at a Division I school.

He wound up as a volunteer coach at Division III Washington & Jefferson in Washington, Pa.

"I didn't think that was a big deal; I just thought that was what I had to do," Painter said.

When the school couldn't pay him, Painter took a job driving a forklift at a local Pepsi plant. It lasted three months, and Painter wound up living most of the year on his credit cards. He bounced from there to Barton College, a Division II school, and later to Campbell and Eastern Illinois.

"I think it's a combination of everything; you always try to learn from other people, learn from your mistakes, learn from other people's mistakes," Painter said. "If you can do that, you're a step ahead of the game. I'm just consumed with the game of basketball."

Hello, Barcelona

Transferring in midseason is not unusual, but turning pro is. That's what Florida forward Christian Drejer is doing, leaving the Gators this week to finish the season with a professional team in Barcelona.

"He basically told me he had an offer on the table that he couldn't turn down," Florida coach Billy Donovan said of Drejer's reported $1 million contract.

The departure of Drejer could not have come at a worst time for Florida, losers of six of its past nine games. Drejer might not have been as good as advertised coming out of Denmark two years ago, but he was the Gators' most versatile player.

After losing half of his freshman year to an ankle injury that turned into a serious infection, Drejer seemed to finally be living up to some of his advance billing, averaging 10.2 points and 4.8 rebounds.

"From an X and O standpoint, Christian Drejer has the ball in his hands a lot," Donovan said. "He was kind of a playmaker for us and he made it very easy for a lot of other players."

Stressing schoolwork

In his first five seasons coaching at Iona, Jeff Ruland has relived some of his past glories there as the greatest player the tiny New York school produced. His teams went to the NCAA tournament twice.

Now Ruland is returning to a darker side of his past.

For the second time this season, Ruland has had to kick one of his players off the team for not living up to their academic responsibilities. DeShaun Williams, a senior guard, had come to Iona last year after being tossed out of Syracuse for a variety of academic and behavioral issues.

"I tell all these guys what is expected, and it's just frustrating," Ruland said. "It gets old. We have a great system in place here and it's pretty difficult not to do well. You've got to really go out of your way. I obviously like to win, but when the guys graduate it means a lot to me."

It should.

After his college career ended when he signed with an agent during his junior year, Ruland was 70 credits short of graduating. When his professional career ended a decade later, Ruland finished his academic requirement in 18 months.

Planting seeds

Each Friday through the regular season, The Sun predicts the top four seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament.

East ................................. Midwest

1. Saint Joseph's ................1. Duke

2. Texas ............................. 2. Okla. State

3. Pittsburgh ..................... 3. Providence

4. N.C. State ...................... 4. Wisconsin

South ................................ West

1. Miss. State .................... 1. Stanford

2. Connecticut .................. 2. Gonzaga

3. Arizona ......................... 3. Wake Forest

4. Louisville ...................... 4. Kentucky

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