Friday , Mar , 17 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Salukis and Mountaineers clash in first round of NCAA Tournament

(Sports Network) – The sixth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers hope to
go even further than last season’s unforgettable NCAA Tournament run, and
they open this year’s event against the 11th-seeded Southern Illinois
Salukis in first round action of the Atlanta Regional. The winner moves on to
the second round to battle either third-seeded Iowa or 14th-seeded
Northwestern State. Southern Illinois is making its fifth consecutive
appearance in the “Big Dance”, and it has achieved five straight 20-win
seasons for the first time in school history. The Salukis won the Missouri
Valley Conference Tournament and are set to play in their ninth NCAA
Tournament since moving to Division I in 1966. The last three seasons they
have failed to get past the second round, but they did reach the Sweet 16
in 2002.

Last year, West Virginia defeated MVC foe Creighton in the first round en
route to an unlikely trip to the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers return with
almost the exact same team as 2004-05, and they are making back-to-back NCAA
Tournament appearances for the first time since 1986-87. This afternoon’s
game marks the first-ever meeting between Southern Illinois and West Virginia
on the hardwood.

The strength of this Southern Illinois squad is defense, as it is allowing
only 56.2 ppg. Not only is that mark the best by the program in over 50 years,
the Salukis placed fourth nationally among 334 Division I teams in scoring
defense as of March 12th. There are some capable offensive performers in the
lineup, and First Team All-MVC performer Tony Young is certainly among them.
He is averaging 11.9 ppg and was particularly impressive against league
competition. Fellow guard Jamaal Tatum is contributing 15.1 ppg to lead the
team and place fourth in the conference in scoring. He is also dishing out 3.3
apg and provides a great deal of leadership. Randal Falker is a 6-7 sophomore
forward who scored 17 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the league title game
en route to being named the MVC Tournament MVP. As for true freshman point
guard Bryan Mullins, he became the fifth player in school history to be named
the MVC Freshman of the Year. He leads the league and ranks seventh nationally
with 2.84 spg as of March 12th.

Prior to this season, only two West Virginia players had ever earned a spot on
the All-Big East First Team. That total has since doubled, as Kevin Pittsnogle
and Mike Gansey have both received that honor. Only once this season has a
player other than Pittsnogle or Gansey led the Mountaineers in scoring, and it
comes as no surprise that they are the only two double-digit scorers on the
roster. Pittsnogle has been the leading scorer for his club the last five
times out, and he is netting 19.5 ppg on 48.5 percent shooting from the floor,
including 40.5 percent efficiency from three-point range. The 6-11 center is
most comfortable playing away from the basket, but he may spend a great deal
of time on the low blocks in this contest since there are no players bigger
than 6-7 in the Southern Illinois lineup. Gansey is posting 17.2 ppg on 55.9
percent shooting from the field and 44.2 percent from long range, and he and
Pittsnogle form one of the nation’s best duos.