Scoring a strength for Cougars, but Forrester expects better on defense

News-DemocratNovember 8, 2013 

— The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville men's basketball team might have some flaws, but coach Lennox Forrester doesn't expect scoring to be one of them.

The Cougars, who were 9-18 overall and 5-11 in the Ohio Valley Conference last season, return four of their six leading scorers. In a 97-61 exhibition victory over Greenville on Monday, SIUE's bench outscored its starters, a positive sign for Forrester.

"I like the fact that we have some other guys who can step up and score for us," said Forrester, in his sixth season. "Everyone on our team gave us something (against Greenville). That's good."

Keaton Jackson, a 6-foot-10 junior, led the attack with 23 points, while 6-2 junior Maurice Wiltz added 20. Grant Fiorentinos, a 6-10 sophomore, 6-3 senior Chrisitan Salecich and 6-4 junior Rozell Nunn scored 10 points apiece. All but Wiltz is a newcomer.

Kris Davis, a 6-2 junior point guard in his third year as a starter, is the Cougars' leading returning scorer from last season when he averaged 11.7 points per game. Michael Messer, a 6-6 junior forward, averaged 8.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.

Davis and Messer are expected to be joined in the lineup by 6-6 senior Ray Lester, 6-4 senior Tim Johnson and 6-0 sophomore Donivine Stewart.

"We've got different guys --just a plethora of guys who can pick up the scoring slack that Mark Yelovich, Derian Shaffer and Jerome Jones gave us," Forrester said. "Over the last few years, we didn't have 11 guys who could give us scoring or play for us. We had some guys on our team who didn't play a lot. We haven't played our first game yet, but right now, we're pretty balanced."

SIUE opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday at Arkansas. The Cougars open their home season at 7 p.m.Wednesday against St. Louis University, followed by another 7 p.m. home game Nov. 16 against Central Arkansas.

"It's going to take some time to jell together," Forrester said. "But so far, the guys are doing a great job. They're coachable and they're listening well. Our defense needs to get caught up to our offense. Our help-side defense and rotation is definitely not there."

Davis, a threat to drive to the rim or score from the outside, could emerge as one of the best players in the OVC.

"He's one of the most experienced guys on the team," Forrester said. "He's played more minutes than anybody else on our team. He has to use his experience and minutes he's played to help our team get to where it needs to get.

"We know he can shoot the basketball. He's done well in practice, but on Monday in the exhibition game, he did not shoot the ball well. But he's proven over the last two years that he can do it."

Messer also will be heavily relied upon.

"Messer is very, very solid," Forrester said. "He's a leader by example because he's going to work hard every day."

Johnson and Wiltz are similar in that Forrester describes them as players who can "score in bunches."

"Tim is an athletic guard," Forrester said. "Right now, he's doing some really, really good things. He's a tough matchup because of his versatility and athleticism."

Jackson (205 pounds) and Fiorentinos (225) are lean in their 6-10 frames, but both are unique in that they can step away from the basket and be offensive threats. Forrester said Jackson will even have the green light to shoot 3-pointers.

"He can score at angles and he can score with his back in the basket. He also can step out and score from 3," Forrester said. "He's a little thin and needs some weight, but he can block shots. He's a shot-changer inside. He's just a nice piece.

"We've got some height. This is the first time in a while we've got guys taller than me."

Forrester is 6-7.

Forrester said Nunn gives the Cougars a gritty edge.

"You're talking about a guy who has some toughness," Forrester said. "He can play inside-out. He can put the basketball on the floor and step out and shoot 3s. He's one of those rugged guys who's going to do some tough good things for us."

Forrester and the Cougars were disappointed they didn't qualify for the OVC Tournament last year and are out to make amends.

"We lost some (key) guys, but we've got some guys who can do some things," he said. "We're looking to improve every year. Last year, we started out the season very well, but we couldn't finish. We improved, but we didn't reach our goal as far as going to the conference tournament."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665.

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