Hangin' with SIU's Chris Lowery

Hangin' with SIU's Chris Lowery

Posted by Lindsey on Wed, 12/17/2008 - 01:42
Remember when Southern Illinois was supposed to become the next Gonzaga -- the next mid-major to ascend to high-major status through sheer will and a bunch of wins? Well, after making it to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2002-07 (and enjoying two runs to the Sweet 16 to bookend that stretch), the Salukis are trying to resume their climb. Last season ended with an 18-14 record and a second-round NIT loss. This year has begun with the program's worst start (3-5) since Bruce Weber kick-started the Carbondale reclamation project way back in 1998-99. But is fifth-year coach Chris Lowery worried as his Salukis prepare for Wednesday's game at Northern Illinois? Heck, no. For one thing, SIU has faced such toughies as Duke, UCLA and Western Kentucky. For another, six of his 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game never played college ball until this year. We caught up with Lowery after SIU went through a two-hour practice at NIU's Convocation Center on Tuesday night. Though the 36-year-old didn't appear to be in good spirits while he directed practice -- the casual fan has no idea how many times his teams repeat mundane defensive drills such as high-post traps and using the right footwork and fundamentals when defending the high-low -- he was revived after spending several minutes chuckling with former SIU football coach Jerry Kill and ex-SIU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys (they visited at the tail end of practice). Lowery never pulls punches or fails to say what he believes. While the conversation became even better after I turned off the recorder, the on-the-record stuff was pretty good, too. Here's a sampling: Joe College: I never thought I'd see the day when Southern Illinois would be letting its opponents shoot 43.6 percent. Chris Lowery: Well, we've never had six freshmen either. We've always been older. We've never had such an influx of young players, but we've never been able to get that good of a young player like we have right now. We have some freshmen playing a lot of minutes -- and we have freshmen come in for freshmen. It's never been that way. (Note: SIU brought in Illinois Mr. Basketball Kevin Dillard, who has started 3 games and ranks as the team's No. 3 scorer (9.0 ppg). They also hit the Public League for Ryan Hare, who's now in the starting lineup, and plucked Top 100 recruit Anthony Booker and his studly teammate Torres Roundtree out of St. Louis. Six-foot-11 redshirt freshman Nick Evans and Bloomington's Justin Bocot, who sat out last season for academic reasons, round out the new six-man crew.) CL: Another thing, we've played a hard schedule. We've played as tough a schedule as anyone in the country with six of our first nine being on the road. JC: Do you do the schedule? CL: Yeah. Not very smart. But I think what it does, it makes us tougher. It makes us stronger in our league. That's why our RPI over the past six years is 22. Because we played people and we've had success. That's developed who we are in our personality. But we're going to take some lumps early and we know we're going to get better because we're going to continue to coach them and work them. JC: So you're not concerned about your record? CL: I'm not panicking because I know if we had it flip-flopped and we had that many home games, then it would be different because of our home atmosphere and our building and the way we get our fans to rally around us (Note: SIU set a school record this year by selling more than 5,000 non-student season tickets). I think this schedule is going to get us ready for January and February. That's the most important thing, especially with a young team. It's a false sense of reality to go out and play people you know you can beat. I think if you challenge them and teach them from our mistakes, then we'll get better. JC: How are your freshmen coming along? CL: ...Now we're at a baby stage. It's like Romper Room teaching all the young ones. We've got to say our ABCs every day in practice so they understand what they need to do. JC: Is this the end of the NIU-SIU series? CL: It's the end right now. Obviously we want to look at it again. How it came about is we wanted a game in Chicago and this is the closest we could get. Bryan Mullins, our senior (point guard from Downers Grove South), we wanted to bring him home in his last year. We were very fortunate to get this game. JC: How's everything else otherwise? CL: It's good. I've never had a team this young as a head coach and it's tough because you want them to understand everything immediately, but deep down you know they're not. With eight minutes to go against Duke, we were down 6. Then they go on a 21-2 run the next three minutes like they're capable of doing against anybody. But they don't know. They were playing high school games. They get to 32 minutes and say, 'All right, coach, I'm done." The next night against UCLA, we were down 4 with eight-and-a-half minutes to play. And they go on like an 18-5 run. Those things, they don't know how to withstand them. They don't know how to make a run be short. "Oh, they're on a 10-0 run. So let's hurry up and shoot a 3 and catch up in two plays!' And I'm like, 'No, that's not what you do.' That's the teaching process of it. If I was impatient, we'd all be screwed up mentally right now after 8 games. JC: OK, I have to ask this only because I see this on the DePaul message boards: They seem to think (Jerry) Wainwright's on his way out and they think somebody like you could come in and save them. You're not going anywhere to save people, are you? (Note: Lowery's in the second year of a seven-year extension that pays him $750K per year). CL: The biggest thing for me is, I want to win. That's No. 1. The only way I would leave Southern is if I thought I could go and win somewhere. I make great money. So I don't have to take a job where I feel is going to be detrimental to my career. I don't think I'm going to go anywhere that's detrimental to winning. And that's the thing: I've always been a part of winning, from high school to college to assistant (coach). Every step of the way, I've had some success. At this point, I don't need to go anywhere just for money. And that's where I clicked stop on the recorder. I'll have more from my Big Snow Day in DeKalb -- including interviews with NIU coach Ricardo Patton and SIU graduate assistant Tony Young (the former Schaumburg great) -- as we go along. Also, check in Wednesday for stuff from the official Bowl Media Days at Northwestern and NIU. LW
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