March 18, 2008

Cowboys travel north for NIT

After an up and down regular season, Oklahoma State has a chance to redeem itself in the National Invitation Tournament.

That chance begins tonight in the forests of Illinois, as the Cowboys travel to Carbondale to take on Southern Illinois in the first round of the other major postseason tournament. The game will tip off at 8 p.m. Central Time and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

The Cowboys (17-15) appear in the NIT for the third consecutive year after making the NCAA Final Fourô in 2004 and Sweet 16 in 2005. In their past two NIT trips, OSU has lost each time in the first round, to Miami in 2006 and Marist in 2007. They are a No. 5 seed this year.

They'll be going up against an SIU (17-14) team that finished third in the typically-tough Missouri Valley Conference. In their conference tournament, they lost in the first round to Northern Iowa, 54-49. While they had a marginal season, the No. 4 seed Salukis are one of the better-known mid-major schools in the nation. They have been in the NCAA Tournament the past six seasons, including a Sweet 16 trip last year. Most of that team is back, too, as their normal starting lineup includes three seniors and two juniors. They'll be a little shorthanded tonight, though, as point guard Bryan Mullins will sit out the game due to a stress fracture.

He's been a big part of the team this season, as he can score and dish the basketball as well. He averaged 10.7 points per game and 5.0 assists per game and will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Joshua Bone. He averages only 7.9 ppg. This doesn't mean their biggest scoring threat will miss the game, however. The leading scorer on this team is forward Randal Falker, a 6-7 post player who puts up 12.7 ppg (on 56 percent shooting) and 6.9 rebounds per game. He also has 43 blocked shots on the year. Closely following him in both categories is another forward, Matt Shaw, who averages 12.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg. But the loss of Mullins should be felt tonight, as he won the MVC Defensive Player of the Year award and had twice as many steals (66) than anyone else on the team.

SIU's a team that likes to play it slow and grind it out. They allowed only 59 points a game this season, but didn't top that by much offensively, scoring 62. Much like the Cowboys, the Salukis rode a late-season winning streak to save themselves from a losing record. SIU won five of their last six regular-season games before the first-round conference tourney loss.

The game should be pretty big for SIU and its fans, as the best-known team to come to Carbondale this season aside from OSU was Indiana on Dec. 1.

The winner of this game will likely head to the Valley of the Sun for a contest against top seed Arizona State on Thursday night in Tempe.

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