After spending time with family in Ohio and Illinois, it was back to the 800 Games Project on Thursday night in Evansville to see the Purple Aces face Southern Illinois. This was my first college game in a week, and the only basketball I had seen in person the past week was a high school tournament on Tuesday at the Salukis' home in SIU Arena. Like most people, Christmas week was fairly inactive for me with attending sports. But Christmas break was not inactive for the Salukis. SIU was one of only eight teams who played between December 24th and the 26th, playing in Hawaii's Diamond Head Classic. After losing three tough games, the Salukis would head back four time zones east to start Missouri Valley Conference play on three days' rest. This would be my annual trip to Valley Country, and much has changed in recent years in the MVC.
While this was my first game ever in Evansville, my dad has seen games in Evansville before. Roberts Stadium in the mid-20th century was considered one of the top venues for small-college basketball in the country. When my dad was a freshman at SIU, he went to see the Salukis face Kentucky Wesleyan at Roberts Stadium for the College Division (now Division II) championship. SIU lost, but under future NBA star Walt Frazier the Salukis would bypass Evansville the following year to win the NIT at Madison Square Garden, and the following year SIU would obtain full Division I membership. The Purple Aces also had success in the 1960s, winning a College Division championship that SIU could never quite obtain. Eventually Evansville would join SIU in Division I starting in 1977. But tragedy struck the Aces hard that December as the entire team was killed in a plane crash. Evansville did go on to have success in the Midwest Collegiate Conference (now Horizon League), and joined the Missouri Valley in the 1990s. The Aces won the MVC in 1999, but have not been the same since. UE is by far the smallest school in the Missouri Valley, and competing at the highest level of mid-major basketball has not been easy.
All of these Evansville teams played at Roberts Stadium from 1956 until this past year. Roberts was an arena of historical significance, but like most old arenas its time had gone by. So with the start of this season the Purple Aces moved into the Ford Center, a multi-purpose facility designed to host a variety of events and revitalize Evansville's downtown. Walking around downtown Evansville before the game, I could see why Evansville wanted a new arena here. Many businesses were closed, and those that were open did not gain business until traffic started to come in from those heading to tonight's game.
Yet with a new arena comes new problems. The arena is more than two miles from campus (as was Roberts), which is not convenient for Evansville's mostly residential student population. The Aces are also just one of many tenants at the arena. Concerts are held on a regular basis at the Ford Center, and a minor league hockey team also calls the Ford Center home. The multiple uses of the arena mean that the Aces have to practice in an on-campus gym rather than where they play their games. The multiple uses also requires more floor space, which means less desirable seating for fans at basketball games as well. Since the arena is used for hockey, only the student sections have seats anywhere near the court behind the basket. A few sections are covered with a tarp due to obstructed views from the temporary stands used to accommodate students (tonight these seats were sold as regular tickets, as only about 20 diehard UE students showed up at one end of the court). Before the game, I read similar comments from Evansville supporters on their message board. If an on-campus facility was not feasible, could the Aces have renovated Roberts? Roberts Stadium was not like some of the outdated arenas I have talked about in the Big South, as it had even more seating than the Ford Center.
I was somewhat skeptical of the arena as a result, as I was concerned that the Ford Center may have been built as part of the Sports Bubble expansion to smaller cities, much like Nationwide Arena in Columbus which I had visited the week before. Fortunately I found the arena staff friendly and helpful, and it was a fairly pleasant experience. I got a seat in the balcony just above the suite level looking down at the UE bench, which is probably as good a seat as a non-season ticket holder will get for basketball at the Ford Center.
My dad was also skeptical of coming to the game, for a different change. His alma mater Southern Illinois has not kept up its basketball tradition in recent years after having great success in the mid-2000s with coaches Bruce Weber and Matt Painter. Current coach Chris Lowery made the Sweet 16 just after Painter left for Purdue and Weber left for Illinois, and SIU awarded him with a large contract so they would not lose yet another coach to the Big Ten. But after the Sweet 16 run, the Salukis have seemed to fall further behind the rest of the competitive Valley each year. Lowery has recruited good players that seem to either run into disciplinary issues or transfer away.
And this season the Salukis have continued to fall. The most notable loss was a Black Line Upset to Ohio Dominican, a Division-II team that typically struggled in its own conference. Since pulling the BLU in Carbondale, ODU has lost eight of its last nine against Division-II competition. The Salukis came into Evansville with a 3-8 record and an even worse RPI than my alma mater, High Point, for the first time ever. When my dad's old high school got off to a good start, he considered staying in southern Illinois this week to see them play more. But upon seeing them get blown out in their first game in the holiday tournament at SIU Arena, there were no good options as to seeing a team my dad roots for do well. So we headed across the Wabash River to see the two lowest-rated teams in the MVC play each other.
Evansville is the closest Valley opponent for the Salukis, only about two hours east of Carbondale. Some Saluki fans could be seen in the nearby sports bars and entering the arena, so a good SIU presence seemed likely. But once the game started, SIU fans had nothing to get excited about. SIU was only on three days' rest after playing in Hawaii over Christmas, and fell behind quickly. SIU did not look like the SIU teams I was used to seeing play. Lowery's Salukis played hard and physical basketball, but the more rested Aces outhustled them down the court and drew numerous fouls, as UE got to shoot 37 free throws. SIU's quality teams from five to ten years ago were known for their slow tempo and strong defense, which Lowery continued with Floor Burn U. But Floor Burn U was nowhere to be found in Lowery's hometown of Evansville this Thursday night. The Aces had 28 points on their first 17 trips down the court, and led 48-27 at halftime. SIU played better in the second half, but nowhere near enough to get out of the early hole. Evansville won by a final of 78-60, and the road in the Missouri Valley figures to get even tougher for SIU.
So seeing SIU and mid-major basketball was just not the same tonight. I always look forward to seeing Missouri Valley basketball each December as the highlight of my annual family holiday trips. But it wasn't the same this year. Hopefully next year SIU will play in Carbondale, which is always a good experience for any mid-major basketball fan. And maybe SIU will improve, and given the demand for basketball in southern Illinois it seems likely that the Salukis will rise again, just like they rose after having down years in the late 1990s. But seeing two straight college basketball games in hockey arenas is not the best experience for the mid-major fan, and me and my parents agreed that the best game we saw on the trip was the High Point win over Wofford on the first day. I will look forward to seeing more basketball in the Midwest someday, but it's now back to the South for now.
at EVANSVILLE 78, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 60 12/29/2011
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 3-9 (0-1) -- M. Seck 9-13 2-2 20; T. Lindsay 3-10 1-2 8; K. Brown-Surles 3-7 6-6 13; J. Swan 1-4 0-2 2; D. Daniels 3-3 0-0 6; D. Drinkard 0-2 0-2 0; J. Early 2-9 1-2 5; T. Setty 1-2 0-0 2; J. Bocot 0-4 2-2 2; D. Taylor 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 23-56 12-18 60. EVANSVILLE 6-5 (1-0) -- C. Ryan 6-14 10-11 25; K. Harris 4-11 3-8 11; D. Holmes 4-6 2-2 11; T. Taylor 2-3 4-6 8; L. Jones 3-4 2-2 8; N. Cox 2-6 4-4 8; R. Sawvell 1-1 0-2 2; J. Moore 2-2 1-2 5; J. Nelson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-47 26-37 78.
Three-point goals: SIU 2-15 (J. Bocot 0-2; K. Brown-Surles 1-3; D. Taylor 0-1; J. Early 0-2; T. Lindsay 1-5; T. Setty 0-1; J. Swan 0-1), EVAN 4-9 (D. Holmes 1-3; C. Ryan 3-5; N. Cox 0-1); Rebounds: SIU 32 (M. Seck 8), EVAN 25 (K. Harris 8); Assists: SIU 11 (M. Seck 3), EVAN 10 (D. Holmes 3); Total Fouls -- SIU 27, EVAN 17; Fouled Out: SIU-M. Seck; EVAN-None.