When I was the Daily Egyptian's sports editor, I received many e-mails about the well-dressed young man sitting at the end of the bench. They asked if he was a coach? Kind of, but not really. A recruit? Kind of, but not really.
Eventually, I got around to writing a feature about Tony Freeman, a 6-foot-1 guard from Maywood, Ill. The University of Iowa transfer sat out the 2008-09 season because of NCAA transfer rules and will look to break out in his senior year at SIU.
And for those who fear he will be rusty, take note that T-Free was named the Most Valuable Player in a tournament played in Turkey over the summer. One of his teammates on the trip was fellow Saluki Nick Evans, and they helped topple the mighty basketball dynasties of France, Germany and Bulgaria.
So, what should fans expect from the team's lone senior?
As a junior, Tony Freeman was the Big Ten Conference's third leading scorer as he averaged 13.8 points per game despite missing 10 non-conference games with a stress fracture in his foot. (Pause. Cause for concern? OK. Continue.) Freeman led the Hawkeyes with 22 steals while averaging 3.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. He shot 38 percent from beyond the arc that season, but is only a 68.6 percent career free throw shooter. And because Freeman will likely take a bulk of the big shots in the guts of a game, an improvement at the line would be beneficiary to his stats and to the team's overall goal of winning.
Still, there isn't a doubt in my mind that Freeman is the most complete player on the Salukis. He's a speedster built like a truck. He's a strongman that can score off the dribble and with a jump shot. Freeman is the piece Southern needed last year to break through in the Valley. Instead, when it came to game day, you could find Freeman at the end of the bench cheering on his teammates.
But it doesn't mean Freeman took it easy in his off year. This feature indicates Freeman's worth to the team.
The 6-foot-1-inch guard has been forced to watch from the sidelines as the Salukis’ roster was depleted because of injuries and mid-season departures.
Even though Freeman is ineligible to participate in games, NCAA transfer rules allow him to practice with the team, which has helped the short-handed Salukis.
Despite being constricted to a limited role, having the former second-team all-state player has been beneficial to the team as a whole, coach Chris Lowery said.
“What he brings is that he is a mature kid,” Lowery said. “He’s played at the highest level and he understands what it means to play hard. He’s a great teammate right now, and that’s what we need more than anything.”
Whether it is on game day or during practice drills, Freeman has been an integral part in the everyday basketball operations.
On game day, Freeman almost serves as an additional assistant coach as he gives teammates tips and support from the sideline. In practice, he is one of the Salukis’ biggest offensive threats and better on-ball defenders.
Freeman will serve as the ying to Kevin Dillard's yang. Whatever that means. Freeman will share some of the ball-handling opportunities as the team will try to alleviate some of the pressure off the back of Dillard, who was the team's primary ball distributor last season. If at all possible, Freeman is a bigger scoring threat than Dillard because his game is more developed at this stage because that is what comes with being a fifth-year senior who spent an entire season taking his bumps and bruises on the practice floor.
Which brings me to my favorite Tony Freeman story.
The scene is at the SIU Arena shortly before one of the first set of practices of the 2008-09 season. A handful of the assembled media had remained after talking to Coach Lowery as Freeman walked by and jokingly asked why none of us wanted to talk to him. Lowery, who generally keeps it loose before practice starts, of course was ready with a quip. "No one wants to talk to scrubs, Free." I laughed. So did others. Freeman had the last laugh.
I eventually sat in my perch high above the SIU Arena where Rodney Watson suggested I could watch practice without being in the way or be a distraction to the coaches or players. I'll always love Rodney for giving me those opportunities. That is where I witnessed Freeman dismantle each and every Saluki defender that tried to guard him. On the defensive end, he was equally as impressive.
Long story, short: A motivated Freeman will be to Southern Illinois basketball what Chamberlain "Champ" Oguchi was to the Illinois State Redbirds last season. Expect Freeman to be listed among player of the year and newcomer of the year candidates if he can stay healthy.