At a time when any coach could’ve been excused for being disappointed, quiet and short with words, Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson was as true to himself as ever. He was indeed disappointed, and his voice softened to a near-whisper at times, but he was hardly reserved.
Fifth-seeded SIU had just lost a hard-fought 66-60 decision to No. 4 seed Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament quarterfinals, a game even closer than the final score. The game was tied with less than a minute left before UNI’s Wes Washpun-as he would so often in this tournament-delivered in the clutch, driving hard for the go-ahead basket with 47 seconds left, and the Panthers finished it off by making 6 of 6 free throws in the final 28 seconds.
The Salukis played well, but just not quite well enough against a red-hot team. Hinson was asked about his team coming up shy of getting its ‘A’ game in the postseason, and rather than being put off or providing a non-answer answer, he was his typical mix of insight, perspective and humor.
“I wanted these guys to answer it (a certain way), but if I knew the answer to that question, I’d be a hell of a rich guy right now,” said Hinson. “That’s basketball. That’s basketball.
“I will say this: it’s really different and difficult to come in it to play in this environment your first time, and that’s why I think next year we’ll come in this building, and we’ll play much better. I know we had some veterans today, but we also had a lot of guys that have never been on the floor today, and when you look through their stats, you go ‘hmmm…they probably didn’t play the best that they’d played in a long time.’ So I think there’s that transition period and the process of maturation.”
“Hopefully, I’ll figure that out by this time next year,” he said to the reporter, “and you can help me write the book, and we’ll just get out of this coaching game and just make money hand over fist. Me, you, and Tony Robbins.”
Those familiar with Hinson know he is always a good quote, but it really can’t be stated enough just what a gem not just the Valley but college sports as a whole has with him. It’s nearly impossible anymore to find a coach or athlete who goes beyond coachspeak or canned soundbites, and Hinson can regularly do so while being honest, yet not coming across as attempting to craft an image driven by some marketing research firm.
This year, though, Hinson also reminded all that he’s a pretty darn good coach as well. After three below average years-including a very frustrating 2014-15 season that included 21 losses and a host of transfers-Southern Illinois rallied to a 22-10 record this year, a tie for fourth in the MVC, and renewed respect as a contender in the conference. For his efforts, Hinson was named the MVC Coach of the Year on Thursday, the first time in his career in the league in which he received the honor.
The Salukis got off to an 18-3 start in part due to a friendly-though not easy-schedule, but if there were any questions on their strength entering Arch Madness, they were answered even in the loss to UNI. Southern outrebounded the Panthers 39-24, battled back from nine points down in the first half and 12 points back in the second, and got a breakout performance from freshman Armon Fletcher, who came off the bench to provide 11 points, five rebounds, three steals, two blocks and a whole lot of energy late as the Salukis rallied.
The battle between Washpun and SIU’s Anthony Beane Jr. was a dandy, with Beane winning the battle (17 points to 11) but Washpun winning the war. Especially in retrospect after watching UNI the rest of the tourney, there was absolutely no shame in the Salukis’ play.
Hinson was named the MVC Coach of the Year just one day earlier, and he’s a terrific ambassador for the league. He has been part of the league for 13 years, including first for nine years at Missouri State, where he is perhaps best remembered for his 2006 team being one of the most notable snubs in the history of the NCAA Tournament. He also has a healthy amount of respect for the league.
“I made this comment yesterday in the banquet that you’ve got the finest collection of basketball coaches anywhere in the country right here in the Missouri Valley Conference,” said Hinson. He then proceeded to go through the coaching roster of the league, noting he voted for Illinois State’s Dan Muller for the award, and really hit his stride talking about the coaches at Missouri State, Drake and Bradley, three of the four lowest-finishing teams in the league.
“You talk about Paul (Lusk) at Missouri State with all the injuries you had this year, my gosh, it’s like a MASH unit, and he’s getting ready to play (in the quarterfinals). Ray Giacoletti (at Drake) and Brian (Wardle at Bradley) had the youngest teams this year. You saw what happened with Ray. They almost won the game (Thursday night). And Brian had daycare. Seriously, he had daycare. I’ve never seen anything like it. You never come into a tape room and see diapers. There’s Pampers, there’s tape, the youngest team I’ve ever seen. So when I speak of this league and these coaches, I’ve got a pretty good pulse on this league, and I’m proud of each and every one of these guys and each and every one of these programs.”
The Salukis this year were a mix of youth and experience. Beane was the only senior among the team’s top eight scorers, but he was a big one-the Valley’s No. 2 scorer and a leader unafraid of carrying a big load. He will be missed, but the team had a host of key newcomers this year in Fletcher, fellow frosh Austin Weiher plus junior college transfers Mike Rodriguez and Leo Vincent. Combined with returning veterans Sean O’Brien, Bola Olaniyan and Tyler Smithpeters, there is a significant base.
This season should not be over, though that is up in the air. Southern Illinois’s record would indicate the Salukis would be a prime candidate for postseason play, but Hinson also was funny, earnest and empathetic of upcoming state budget cuts coming to the university in assessing his team’s postseason chances as well as possible decisions.
“We’re not going to go to the NCAA. I don’t think we’re going to get an RPI low enough to get that,” said Hinson, before delivering the dagger punchline to hearty laughter. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a low enough RPI to get in the NCAA…ka-ching.”
“We’re not going to get an invite to the NIT, and we don’t deserve one,” he continued. “As far as our postseason play, we’re going to get a call next week from our state legislature, and they’ll let us know the number that the budget is going to be cut. If we play in postseason play, we will only do it if we know that we can be on the positive side of the ledger. We are not going to play a tournament in which we have to buy at this time when people are losing their jobs. We will not do that.
“If we can raise the money privately, then possibly, but this will be a decision that we will make along with our athletic director, our chancellor and our president. But I repeat, we will not pay to play in a tournament when people are getting ready to lose their jobs. We support everything that our university does. We’re going to get a cutback next week, and we’ll be team players like everybody else, because that’s who we play for is our university.”
It wasn’t that long ago, but it has been almost a decade now since SIU’s recent glory years, a stretch from 2002-07 where the team advanced to six straight NCAA Tournaments, including two Sweet 16 berths. The Salukis may not be quite back there yet, but Hinson had no problem making the connection that he expects that is the direction where the program is going.
“I can tell you right now, my expectation is that this program continues to rise,” said Hinson. “I don’t mind saying this. I’ll say this proudly. Saluki basketball is back. We’re back. We’re back. Period. And I’m proud to say that. It’s been a rough three years. So if I sound kind of frisky when I say that, I kind of like saying it like that. But it is (back). I don’t have a problem saying that.”