ST. LOUIS – Take it from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Salukis. Newcomer Deion Lavender is on the fast track to becoming an impact basketball player.
“He’s smooth and he’s college ready as a freshman,” SIUC associate head coach Tom Hankins said Tuesday at Missouri Valley Conference media day.
Hankins subbed for head coach Barry Hinson, who was attending a funeral.
Hinson previously praised Lavender, a 6-foot-3 first-year guard and Marquette Catholic High graduate. Lavender averaged 25.5 points per game last season for the 22-7 Explorers, champs of the Class 3A Triad Regional. He was the AdVantage News’ Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“He has an opportunity to be a very special player,” Hinson said after Lavender signed with the Salukis.
Lavender could be good enough to give the Salukis some much-needed scoring punch this season. SIUC, which debuts Nov. 15 at Saint Louis University, finished 14-19 last year and was 9-9 in the Valley. SIUC also has an intriguing date Dec. 3 at sister school SIUE.
“He’s in the mix to be a starter,” Hankins said of Lavender. “We’re not going to red-shirt him.”
Hankins added: “Deion can put the ball in the basket a lot of different ways. And he can play both guard positions. He’s doing a great job for us and competing for a starting position.
“He has a great feel for the game and for a guy who did a lot of scoring in high school, he’s a good passer,” Hankins said. “If he has a shot, but sees a player that is open and has a better shot, he will pass him the ball.”
Point guard Anthony Beane serves as the team leader and the Salukis are trying to climb into the top half of the MVC. Their depth could be a factor in the team’s success. Beane is a 6-2 junior from Normal.
“We’ll have eight or nine guys in our rotation,” Hankins said. The Salukis are picked to finish seventh in the 10-team league.
All signs point to Wichita State, 35-1 last season and winners of its first 35 games, as the team to beat. The Shockers only loss came to Kentucky, 78-76, in the NCAA Regional title game at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Kentucky went on to finish second to Connecticut in the NCAA finals.
“We had a busy off-season and a lot of work to do for this season,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.
Tekele Cotton, a 6-2 senior guard; Ron Baker, a 6-3 junior guard and Fred VanFleet, a 5-11 junior guard from Rockford; pace the Shockers.
Marshall said: “Those three guys helped to put us on the map last year.”
Wes Washpun, a 6-1 junior guard from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and son of former Alton High standout Troy Washpun, figures to be a key player for the Northern Iowa Panthers. He averaged 8.3 ppg last season.
Northern Iowa, Missouri State and Evansville could be Wichita State’s main challengers during the 18-game conference schedule. Northern Iowa returns all its starters, including 6-8 senior Seth Tuttle.
Purple Aces’ coach Marty Simmons, formerly at SIUE from 2002-07, has its first five back and will build around 6-2 junior D.J. Balentine. Ex-AHS star Kavon Lacey works as director of basketball operations at Evansville.
“It’s the most talented group of players I’ve seen in my eight years here,” Simmons said. “I’m excited about this team and the guys coming back are excited about this season.”
Illinois State (fifth), Indiana State (sixth), Bradley (eighth), Drake (ninth) and Chicago Loyola (10th) round out the order of MVC men's preseason poll. Wichita State women’s team is also rated tops in the Valley.
The men’s tournament runs March 5-8 at Scottrade Center and the women’s one is set for March 12-15 at The Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. The women’s tourney relocates to Moline and the Quad Cities Wireless Center in 2016.