Busting Brackets

MVC Basketball: Southern Illinois's Xavier Johnson the league's ultimate X-factor

Dec 16, 2023; Wichita, Kansas, USA; Southern Illinois Salukis Xavier Johnson (10) looks to get
Dec 16, 2023; Wichita, Kansas, USA; Southern Illinois Salukis Xavier Johnson (10) looks to get / William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Southern Illinois’ Xavier Johnson is one of the top players in the country. He has exploded onto the college basketball scene seemingly out of nowhere and is in the running to be the Missouri Valley Conference’s player of the year. If national prognosticators and voters had any sense, he’d be in the running for an all-American award. 

By season’s end, Johnson will be named the Valley’s ‘Most Improved Player’. His current 23 points per game scoring average is 16 points higher than his junior season scoring average. ‘X’ is second nationally and leads the league in scoring and assists (6.1) and has an outside shot at becoming the Valley’s first national scoring leader since Creighton’s Doug McDermott (2013).

His season started with a bang as he scored 38 points in SIU’s fourth game, but he has also been a model of consistency. He’s never scored fewer than 16 points in a game, even though two games ago he needed to tally all 17 of that night’s points during the second half. 

He and Drake’s Tucker DeVries are the MVC’s two most feared offensive weapons. Each can hit the thirty-point mark on any given day, and they are precision passers helping their teammates to easy buckets. 

During every other team’s scout of Southern Illinois, they know that Johnson is the ‘X factor’. His long-range shooting is outstanding and yet he is on the verge of breaking an SIU single-season record of made free throws due to his relentless drives to the lane. Once at the charity stripe, he rarely misses (.902) and if teams don’t foul him, he is an outstanding finisher and distributor. 

His teammates are having their best three-point seasons because the attention drawn by Johnson and his ability to score. He not only finds the open man, but gets them to ball in a position to score. 

Trent Brown is converting a career-high .404 percentage from deep and has more threes than in any of his previous four SIU seasons. Troy D’Amico will soon double the number of triples this season over the last campaign. 

Increased Role and Increased Leadership

Portal transfers of last year’s top two scorers changed the SIU dynamic. Johnson was forced on to the center stage. At the urging of coach Bryan Mullins he attended an offseason ‘Captains Camp’ hosted by Athletes In Action. 

During that summer camp, Johnson learned valuable leadership lessons and decided to be the leader his Saluki teammates needed. Johnson says the camp helped him realize there are different leadership styles. 

“We did team building stuff,” said Johnson. “We talked about leadership stuff. They talked about what it takes to be a great leader. Qualities like being authentic and congruency and trusting one another are really important. We got to pick some peoples’ brains on different leadership styles and what works best.”              

Marcus Domask, last season’s leading scorer is thriving at the University of Illinois. The four-year Saluki is averaging over 15 points and is grabbing nearly five rebounds per game. SIU’s second-leading scorer, Lance Jones is running in the backcourt for nationally ranked Purdue. Jones is averaging 12.1 points and over two rebounds and two assists for the 19-2 Boilermakers. 

With the talented Saluki roster decimated, Johnson not only needed to lead his team, but score, distribute and play great defense. (He was named to the Valley’s all-defensive team last season). Coach Mullins was a four-year member of the Valley’s all-defensive team as an SIU player and was part of the great ‘Floor Burn U’ teams of the mid-2000s. He requires great defense. 

While Johnson is captaining this SIU team he is (or should be) challenging for national honors. He is second nationally in scoring to Denver’s Tommy Bruner (26.1 ppg) and has claimed more kenpom.com ‘Game MVP’ notifications (13) than anyone other than Purdue’s Zach Edey. 

SIU was picked to finish 9th in the Valley’s preseason poll and following Johnson’s lead the Salukis are currently tied for fourth and own a non-conference wins over the Big Twelve’s Oklahoma State, the Atlantic Ten’s Saint Louis and Conference USA’s New Mexico State. 

The Valley’s ‘X Factor’ has topped the thirty-point mark five times this season. Three occurred in consecutive games against SLU, Oklahoma State and Austin Peay. His season-high of 38 points came during a narrow loss to outstanding James Madison (18-3). 

It was his running layup with seconds remaining Saturday that pushed the Salukis into that fourth place tie. 

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With ten games left in the Valley season, the league’s biggest ‘x factor’ will be attempting to captain his team into a top-four finish.