Saluki Men's Hoops 2009-10 Preview: Kevin Dillard

[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series previewing the 2009-10 SIU men's basketball team.  After finishing the 2008-09 season with a disappointing 13-18 record, Chris Lowery's Salukis are one year stronger and one year smarter as they will look to extract revenge on the Missouri Valley Conference teams that took advantage of a young squad.  Those teams will get their comeuppance soon enough.  And what better way to warn them than with a preview of each player that will tear their hearts out and step on their souls.]

Kevin Dillard became the first Saluki freshman to lead the team in scoring since Kent Williams.  So how does the former Illinois Mr. Basketball follow up a stellar first-year campaign?

By bulking up.

Dillard earned many accolades as a true freshman, including being named to the Missouri Valley Conference's All-Freshman and All-Newcomer teams and being named the conference's Freshman of the Year.  He averaged 12.2 points per game leading SIU and ranking first among all freshmen. Dillard also finished second in the Valley in 3-point percentage (45.2 percent) and third in assists (4.2 per game).

Still, it didn't mean that there wasn't room for KD to improve.

A microcosm of the talented guard's season can be found in the SIU men's basketball team's 73-72 overtime loss on Jan. 14 at Creighton.  This story, written by yours truly details the action.

Freshman guard Kevin Dillard led the Salukis with 21 points in 39 minutes of play and dished five assists, but a pair of freshman mistakes hurt the team in the game’s closing seconds.

After hitting a pair of free throws to give SIU (7-10, 2-4) a 63-60 lead with 10.4 seconds remaining in regulation, Dillard fouled guard Cavel Witter as he attempted a 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds, giving the Bluejays a chance to tie the game.

Witter proceeded to hit all three free throws to tie the game. Senior guard Bryan Mullins had a chance to win the game in regulation, but his desperation 3-point heave near midcourt glanced off the rim to send the game into overtime.

It's a situation I replayed about a month ago with SIU head coach Chris Lowery who said now that Dillard has added some muscle, situations like that will likely never happen again.

KD has bulked up in the offseason, a process that began shortly after the team's season ended with an opening round loss to Bradley in the MVC Tournament.  And even though Dillard is stronger, his added strength has not altered the sugar-sweet jump shot that helped him to carry a hefty scoring load.

With Bryan Mullins completely out of the pictuer, Dillard becomes the team's main ball-handler.  He will be in charge of running the offense and getting his teammates involved -- all while trying to create his own shot.  It seems like a tall task for a sophomore floor general. 

The biggest area in which Dillard can improve as a sophomore is in the turnover department.  Dillard needs to handle his business in regard to his ball handling skills because 1.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio isn't going to cut it.  Not at SIU.  Not when your head coach is Chris Lowery, who knows a thing or two about running the point as a Saluki.  And especially not when you're following one of the best point guards, not just in school history, but in Missouri Valley Conference history.

Expect Dillard to bump his scoring a tad into the 13 or 14 ppg range, especially if he can improve on his stroke from the charity stripe, where he shot only 72 percent.  KD should also see his assist numbers rise, especially if his turnover rate dips.

Saluki fans are always craving a big man, but the truth of the matter is that guard play will carry you not only through the conference season, but through postseason play as well.  There will be 12 other ballers decked out in maroon and white joining him in the huddle this upcoming season.  But the team' will go only as far as Dillard (and the rest of the guards for that matter) will take them.