Edwardville native Jon Harris paid his dues for over a decade before being hired in 2015 to take over as the men’s head basketball coach at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
As assistant coach at four NCAA Division I programs including Missouri State, Tennessee and California before taking on the task of rebuilding the Cougars program, Harris knows the time and patience it’s going to take to make SIUE into a contender in the Ohio Valley Conference.
After struggling to a 12-46 mark the first two years under Harris, the Cougars were an improved team a year ago. SIUE finished 9-21 and qualified for the OVC postseason tournament for the first time in the Harris era.
There’s still some work to be done, though.
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“Honestly, our record hasn’t been what wanted it to be at this point, but the reality is that it takes time,’’ Harris said before a recent Cougars practice. “This is not our first rebuilding situation. We’ve been a lot of places and typically its a three to four year window.
“This is the first year that we’ve got a roster of guys that we recruited and brought in. It’s also the first year that positions 1-5 that we have guys who played last and had some success last year are back. And that experience makes a major difference.’’
Harris unveiled the 2018-19 Cougars on Tuesday at the Vadalabene Center against the University of the Pacfiic. The opener was the first of a non-conference schedule which includes, among others, Valporaiso, SIU-Carbondale, Drake and Washington State. The Ohio Valley Conference season begins in January.
A 1998 graduate of Edwardsville High School where he earned all-state recognition, Harris went on to play four years at Maquette Univeristy in Milwaukee. Now after an assistant coaching career which began in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and ended in 2015 at California, Harris has his own program in his home town.
“I don’t look at like there being any pressure of coaching in my home town. I look at it like there are some added expectations because I have been fortunate enough to have a little bit of success throughout my coaching career,” he said. “I think people have expectations, but that’s not something we shy away from. That’s a good thing in my mind when people expect you to be successful.”
Success begins with talented players, who Harris says must first be sold on the university and the program. Harris said one of the biggest parts of his job is to get the word out about the Cougars.
It’s been a bigger challenge than he thought, he said.
“I don’t want to say it’s been a struggle to attract local players early, but a big part of our job the first three years has been to get our brand out there,” Harris said. “You would be surprised to know that the first year or two, we would go across the river 20-30 minutes away and people don’t really know who we are.”
The school campus, the city of Edwardsville and facilities that got a major upgrade when the program moved to D-1 all are easy selling points, once they get the athletes to campus, Harris said.
The current Cougars roster has just three local players — Cameron Williams (Hazelwood Central), Brandon Jackson (Cardinal Ritter) and Jackson Best (Edwardsville).
Harris says few things would help him build the Cougar brand better than a roster deep with local talent. Depending on the needs of the team, he said, he would like to bring in at least one or two new local players each year.
“I think that would generate more interest and enthusiasm in SIUE basketball,” he said.
Even with five players who made major contributions a year ago, the Cougars were picked to finish 12th in the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference in the OVC pre-season poll of coaches.
Belmont, Murray State and Jacksonville State are the predicted top three teams in the OVC.
“Overall, I think our league will be better than it was a year ago. ...” Harris said. “But I think we have a really good team as well.
“On the front line we added some size and some athleticism. We added a point guard from the Chicago area that is really dynamic and different than we’ve had in the past and we have a nice local flavor in a wing in Cameron Williams. We’ve got guys in that we’re all really excited about. ‘’
Harris also leaves no doubt that this Cougars team will be his best to date.
“We took a big step forward last year in qualifying for the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. That’s a consistent goal. I don’t shy away from saying that we’re going to be the last team standing before this thing is over.’‘ Harris said. “This will be our most competitive team by far.”
2018-19 SIUE Roster
F Treavon Martin (6-8, 210), Chicago Curie HS
F DJ Jackson (6-5, 190), Fayette Ware HS (Moscow, Tenn.)
G D’Quan Applewhite (6-3, 180), Harvey-Thornton HS
G Daniel Kinchen (6-3, 170), Alabama Southern CC (Atlanta, Ga.)
G Tyresse Williford (5-10, 165), Wabash Valley CC (Chicago)
F Christian Ellis (6-2, 190), Modesto Christian HS (Oakland, Calif.)
G David McFarland (6-4, 180), East Mississippi CC (Edwards, Miss.)
G Blake Lindenmeyer (6-0, 180), Arcola HS
G Justin Benton (6-4, 195), Houston HS (Memphis, Tenn.)
C Elochukwu Eze (6-10, 240), Ashville (NC) Christian Academy (Nigeria)
G Cameron Williams (6-2, 190), Hazelwood Central HS (St. Louis)
G Jaylen McCoy (5-11, 180), Wallace State CC (Montgomery, Ala.)
F Anselm Uzuegbunem (6-7, 235), Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa (Oklahoma City)
G Jackson Best (5-9, 165), Edwardsville HS
F Brandon Jackson (6-7, 215), Cardinal Ridder HS (East St. Louis)