Alas, it wasn't meant to be for Southern, which finished a disappointing 13-18 to garner a fifth place finish in the MVC. And for the second straight year, the Salukis were knoked out of the conference tourney in their first game.
So, now what?
SIU played its final nine games without senior leader Bryan Mullins, and all the media heard was about how the team struggled without him. Understandably so. It's hard to lose your best player in the guts of the conference season.
But, um, what happens next year when Southern plays its entire season without Mullins leading the way. Sure, Iowa transfer Tony Freeman will soften the blow, but he's a senior next year.
What happens in the years after that?
There's a part of me that believes SIU will be fine. Chris Lowery didn't forget to coach overnight. Back-to-back disappointing years have fired up a fanbase to the point where some are already calling for Lowery's head.
The love for "Floorburn U" is still fresh in my mind. It was cool that there were no fouls and no whistles in practice. That in-your-face 'D' that irked opposing players, coaches and fans was great. It was fun. It was physical. It was hard work.
Now, after a couple of tough years, the Salukis have to start from scratch, according to some. Scrap "Floorburn U"? Throw in a zone? Need giants down low?
No. no. And not really.
"Floorburn U" seems to be working for Illinois and Purdue. Sure, the talent might be better on paper, but it's more about coaching said talent and getting it to buy into "The System." Yes, it gets capitalized and put in quotations. It won't be long until it's trademarked.
Zone defenses. Yuck. It looks like lazy defense to me. There's a reason Jim Boeheim has won only one national championship, and it's not because of the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone. Boeheim owes his life to Carmelo Anthony.
Matt Shaw, Randal Falker, Rolan Roberts, Jermaine Dearman, Seymour Bryson and Joe C. Meriweather are among the great big men to star for SIU. But the Salukis thrived because of great guard play.
Walt Frazier, Greg Starrick, Chico Vaughn, Troy Hudson, Chris Lowery (yeah, the coach), Paul Lusk, Jamaal Tatum, Darren Brooks, Stetson Hariston, Tony Young, Bryan Mullins. That's just some of the names that sparked the Salukis' offensive and defensive efforts.
Fact: SIU has faltered the last two years. Joshua Bone, Josh Tabb, Nick Rogers and Christian Cornelius should have been great contributors by now.
Bone bailed on the team after its trip to Canada. Tabb flaked, followed a lucrative offer by Bruce Pearl at Tennessee and has been buried on the bench since. Nick Rogers is still available in NCAA College Hoops 2K6, but never even laced it up for SIU. Cornelius left the team after an injury-riddled Saluki career.
It's lack of productive upperclassmen, as the wise Hartwig pointed out a long time ago in a blog far, far away, is the true reason for the Salukis' recent slump.
SIU will be carried by this class of youngsters, and only time will tell how Lowery's last two classes stack up.
However, Southern's fate will lie in the hands of its next incoming class.
The Salukis will return impact players such as MVC Freshman of the Year Kevin Dillard, Ryan Hare, Justin Bocot, center Nick Evans and forwards Anthony Booker and Carlton Fay.
But where do Kendal Brown, Drew Barham and Jordan Myers fit in? What about the three available scholarships? Where does Lowery try to balance winning now and developing for the future.
SIU prospered when it was able to redshirt players and teach them what college basketball in Carbondale and in the Valley was all about. They watched. They learned. They played. They succeeded.
It was as simple as that. And while figuring out the future isn't that simple, here's hoping that it is.