"The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned... I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself."
The last rays of daylight coming through the gray sky guided our way back over the Mississippi River and into Illinois. After a quick jaunt to Memphis for an early tip-off, my friend Drew and I were back on our turf headed for a familiar haunt: SIU Arena in Carbondale.
Drew is a recent SIU grad, and his love of Southern Illinois basketball only helped to strengthen what was an already rooted interest in the Saluki program. Of course, this is a program that has gone through a near-precipitous drop in stature after spending the better part of the last two decades as an almost-perennial Sweet 16 participant. Drew and I have discussed this in great detail in the past, and renewed our conversation during both legs of our drive. We have agreed most of the impetus for the SIU decline comes from their coach, Chris Lowery. Player defections have been rampant under Lowery, and the chances of Southern Illinois ever putting a consistent team on the court still remains slim.
The Salukis' opponent that night also rang very familiar to us as well: the St. Louis Billikens. I'm a native of the St. Louis area, and have followed the Bills since the days of Spoonball. The Billikens sit now on the start of an incline in their program's ability, pocked last year by ultimately unfounded scandal. Those who know SLU coach Rick Majerus' style and work ethic know it was a temporary setback, and many have suggested SLU is a potential threat to steal the Atlantic 14 this season.
But the most familiar aspect of the St. Louis team, from our aspect anyway, is senior guard Kyle Cassity. Cassity grew up in the small town of Tamaroa, Illinois (population 740), and became the high school superstar at nearby Pinckneyville. These are roughly 30 miles north of Carbondale, as deep in Saluki Country as one can get. Drew said Cassity's dream was always to wear the maroon and white. And before this game, Cassity's mother confirmed this in a radio interview.
But Lowery's offer to Cassity was such: no scholarship, Cassity could walk on to the SIU team if he so desired. Drew speculates this is due to an already loaded recruiting class featuring Anthony Booker, Kevin Dillard and Torres Roundtree, all of whom transferred after the 2009-10 season -- Booker to Iowa State, Dillard to Dayton, Roundtree to the JuCo level at Southwestern Illinois State.
Cassity took this slight personally and began to pursue his other options. Missouri-Kansas City had expressed some interest, as had Michigan -- Drew tells of the legend of John Beilein sitting in the living room of the Cassity home as Kyle got home from practice one night, but it's never been confirmed -- and St. Louis.
The draw of home pulled strong on young Cassity. Add to that his appreciation of Majerus and his system, and Cassity made the 75-mile trek up Interstate 64 and the SLU campus. He has lead the Billikens in assists the past two seasons.
Thanks to what can only be described as an act of basketball kismet, our seats were in the back row of the two sections taken over by two busloads of SLU fans brought down from St. Louis. Alumni and donors, the student section and part of the "World's Greatest Pep Band", sans instruments but very much con voce, stood right in front of us.
Closer to the Billikens bench, more than 100 people sat in Royal "SLU" Blue and the lighter blue of Pinckneyville High School, all guests of the Cassity family according to the post-game radio show.
Four minutes in, Cassity himself picked Justin Bocot's pocket and drove for a gimme layup and a 6-4 SLU lead the Bills would never relinquish. Southern Illinois scored only 15 points in the first half on an absolutely appalling 4-of-22 shooting (18.1%) and coughing up the ball 9 times under a combination of SLU's relentless man defense and Southern's players' decisions to all play one-on-five most of the time. SIU had one assist for the game.
On the other hand, SLU's ball movement was precise and made for multiple open shots from deep or wide open back door cuts for layups.
Drew and I discussed whether we thought Cassity could just start scoring at will here and really stick it to the school who spurned him. We agreed that he absolutely could, but would not because he's part of Majerus' non-selfish style.
The second half saw more SIU struggles from the field. The Salukis' first field goal didn't come for until the 9:18 mark, a Jeff Early layup. Until then, SIU had managed to score 12 points all from the free throw line thanks to whistle-happy referees who had both teams in the double bonus by the under-8 media timeout. SIU finished with just eight field goals.
For the last ten minutes of the game, SIU Arena became Chaifetz South, as SIU fans started their disappointed trips home early.
Cassity responded to the atmosphere by nailing a superhoop and another pick-pocket layup to finish with ten points. As the final minute ticked off the clock, chants of "WE ARE... SAINT LOUIS!!!" echoed off the SIU Arena roof, giving Kyle Cassity something he wanted all along, a home game in Carbondale... even if he was in enemy colors.
Drew and I sat for a moment after the final buzzer, taking a last minute to soak in what we had done today. 13 hours after we awoke, we had traveled almost 500 miles, seen 2 basketball games, and made more memories we will share for a lifetime.
We passed several people Drew recognized, wearing their Billiken Blue "CASSITY 23" shirts with pride as we all walked out into the unusually warm November night. This night, SIU Arena was Kyle Cassity's home, and he made sure it was sweet.
SAINT LOUIS 61, at SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 42 11/15/2011
SAINT LOUIS 2-0 (0-0) -- J. Johnson 8-20 6-8 25; K. Mitchell 3-8 2-4 9; J. Jett 3-4 0-0 6; B. Conklin 4-5 6-6 14; K. Cassity 4-4 0-0 10; C. Ellis 4-9 1-2 11; M. McCall 2-10 2-2 6; D. Evans 2-5 0-0 4; R. Loe 0-4 0-0 0; C. Remekun 0-1 0-2 0; J. Manning 0-0 1-2 1; J. Barnett 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 22-52 12-18 61. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 0-2 (0-0) -- D. Taylor 0-5 6-8 6; J. Swan 0-1 0-4 0; D. Daniels 0-4 3-6 3; M. Seck 0-4 7-8 7; J. Bocot 2-6 3-4 8; T. Setty 3-8 2-3 8; T. Lindsay 1-4 0-0 2; J. Early 2-5 2-2 6; K. Goff 0-0 0-0 0; H. Whitt 0-2 2-2 2; A. Bryer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 8-39 25-37 42.
Three-point goals: SLU 5-14 (K. Mitchell 1-2; K. Cassity 2-2; C. Ellis 2-5; J. Barnett 0-2; R. Loe 0-2; M. McCall 0-1), SIU 1-9 (J. Bocot 1-4; D. Taylor 0-1; J. Early 0-1; T. Lindsay 0-1; T. Setty 0-1; J. Swan 0-1); Rebounds: SLU 33 (K. Mitchell 7), SIU 34 (M. Seck 9); Assists: SLU 12 (K. Mitchell 4), SIU 1 (D. Taylor 1); Total Fouls -- SLU 24, SIU 21; Fouled Out: SLU-None; SIU-None.