Southern Illinois junior Matt Shaw practiced Wednesday in HP Pavilion. And that's a start.
The Salukis' starting forward badly sprained his left ankle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday, leaving his availability unknown for today's 6:10 p.m. West Regional semifinal game against Kansas University.
"I'd say it's a game-time thing," Shaw said. "It feels all right right now. It's still sore, it's still not fully recovered. I can't do certain things I'm capable of, but I'm going to keep working."
It was obvious during the open practice - which took place about 30 hours before today's game - that Shaw wasn't exactly moving freely on his bad wheel. Though he was able to run and make some cuts and even dunk the ball once or twice, Shaw obviously felt discomfort while on the court. He always jumped off two feet, never ran at a sprint and often showed a slight grimace after taking his turn in drills.
His availability is critical, considering Shaw's impact on the Salukis. He started all 34 games before the injury, averaging 11.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. His shooting touch is sweet for a 6-foot-7 forward - he's hit 42 three-pointers and shoots a team-best 81 percent from the free-throw line, giving opponents a unique look when he's out there.
Southern Illinois did advance the Sweet 16 without him, beating Virginia Tech, 63-48, in the second round Sunday with Shaw on the bench. Still, SIU coach Chris Lowery realizes Shaw's importance, especially against a longer, more athletic Kansas team.
"He has the ability to stretch defenses," Lowery said. "(Kansas has) great shot blockers. To be able to get at least one of them away from the rim at all times would obviously help."
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Shaw sprained the ankle when coming down after a rebound at the end of the first half against Holy Cross last Friday in Columbus, Ohio. Since then, he's been visiting trainer Ed Thompson extensively, getting ice and electric stimulation treatments several times a day.
"It's funny. On the plane ride here yesterday, I got treatment twice," Shaw said. "We're using all the time available to get me better."
Shaw estimated he was at "80 or 90" percent, which means the waiting game will continue right up until 6:10 p.m. today.
He has a guess, but it's just that - a guess.
"I feel I'm going to be able to go, but that's just me being optimistic," Shaw said. "There's still a chance I'm not going to be able to. But in my mind, I'm going to."
¢Scrappiness: Southern Illinois stresses defense, but even Lowery knows that's no selling point for potential recruits, who usually are offensive-minded coming out of high school.
"We can't recruit that way," Lowery said. "We recruit winning."
Then, he "emphasizes" the defense and scrappy play once they're on campus. Several players talked Wednesday of rough practices with cuts and bruises commonplace at SIU. To encourage gritty play, Lowery has several changes in traditional basketball rules.
For one, there's no out-of-bounds, a way of encouraging players to go after loose balls.
There's also the matter of fouling, which basically is non-existent in SIU practices.
"You've got to be in a dangerous situation," guard Tony Young said. "If you're about to dive onto some spikes or a rim's about to fall on your head, he'll stop a play. But for the most part, it's just playing until somebody says stop."
¢Their little secret: SIU forward Randal Falker, the Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year, said he'd probably guard KU's Julian Wright today.
Other players were a little more hush-hush about their defensive assignments.
"Coach keeps it a secret until right before the game," a smiling Young said.
¢What are you anyway?: A reporter asked Falker to sum up his own team.
"We see ourselves as us," Falker said. "Southern Illinois, a Saluki, where nobody knows what our mascot is."
For the record, a Saluki is an ancient Egyptian dog known for its speed and hunting prowess. SIU was known as the Maroons until 1951, when the student body voted to change the mascot.
¢Staying loose: Falker had reporters chuckling during interviews in the open locker room Wednesday.
A teammate was giving the junior a hard time while he was answering questions. Falker stopped mid-sentence during one answer and excused himself, grabbed a bag of potato chips and threw it at his teammate's head.
He then continued his answer like nothing happened.
¢Famous face: Southern Illinois' athletic department has a ticket reserved for a famous fan. SIU grad and television star Jim Belushi is expected to be in San Jose for today's game.