When Armon Fletcher returned home from a much-anticipated season opener at Kentucky, the Southern Illinois Carbondale guard was hobbled but hopeful.
However, a knee injury suffered against the Wildcats brought bad news with a six- to eight-week recovery period expected. Adrenaline had allowed him to keep playing that night. The diagnosis caught him off guard.
“It messed with my head a little for a while,” the Edwardsville High alum said. “But I have a great support system and great people in my circle who helped keep me together mentally.”
Surprisingly, the 6-foot-5 senior was able to play less than three weeks later. He’ll enter Wednesday night’s game against St. Louis University in Carbondale as the Salukis’ leading scorer and rebounder as well as being the only remaining member of his recruiting class in the program.
Sticking with coach Barry Hinson has paid off for Fletcher, who is in his fifth year at SIUC, having redshirted as a freshman.
He was voted to the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason all-conference team after making the second team as a junior. He recently surpassed 1,000 points for his career. But scoring isn’t necessarily the emphasis for Fletcher.
“I think he’s got more areas he can continue to get better,” Hinson said after his team’s win at SIU Edwardsville. “He knows how I feel about him shooting. He’s a scorer. He’s one of the best 3-point shooters I’ve ever coached. If we did a shooting video, we’d literally talk about how compact he is. ... He knows he’s got the green light any time behind the arc. But he knows to get to the next level, rebounding and defense are going to be what get him there, not shooting. He’s already got that part.”
Fletcher is averaging 13.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, both of which lead SIUC. He’s shooting 61 percent and has made 55.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
Having him back in the lineup has been crucial for a team that was picked to finish third in the MVC. The Salukis have won five of six since losing to Kentucky and Buffalo to open the season.
Fletcher said he developed his shot as a young player because he was afraid of contact. Tall and skinny, he shied away from the lane in favor of open jumpers.
He said he has gone through a variety of shooting forms along the way, emulating various NBA players.
“Growing up I was so skinny,” he said. “I couldn’t jump. I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t fast. The only thing I could do was shoot. I finally found something that made me feel comfortable. I had to fix some things with my elbow being out. I started watching Brad Beal highlights because he keeps his elbow in.”
Fletcher’s persistence to stay at SIUC went against the grain. Three other members of his class departed with Jordan Caroline heading to Nevada, where he is a star on a top-10 team, Deion Lavender to Valparaiso and Chaz Glotta (Fort Zumwalt North) to Maryville.
Fletcher became an oddity: a fifth-year player with his original school.
“You see what takes place with guys in one place for five years,” Hinson said. “The guys before him left because we weren’t winning. ... We haven’t had a losing season with Armon playing.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t think about leaving. But simply following his former teammates took wasn’t enough and eventually he decided, “I didn’t have a reason to leave.”
“Personally, it has helped me become a better man,” he said of putting in five years. “Being able to make a tough decision and my parents allowing me to grow up on my own here — it’s just benefited me well. I learned a lot basketball-wise sitting out my freshman year.”
He hopes to help get the Salukis to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Two of the team’s losses thus far have been understandable. The Salukis hung around with ninth-ranked Kentucky until the final 10 minutes. They then lost to No. 17 Buffalo at home without Fletcher.
A lopsided loss to Massachusetts was a lot more concerning. But the Salukis have played better since, and have won their last two games on the road.
“We’ve seen how good we can be and how bad we can be,” Fletcher said. “We’ve taken a few losses we feel we could have won. We feel we’re not at our best right now, even though it looks like we’re playing well.”
SLU at SIU CARBONDALE
When: 7 p.m.
Where: SIU Arena
All-time series: SLU leads 31-26
TV/radio: ESPN+; WXOS (101.1 FM)
Records: SLU 6-1, SIUC 5-3
About the Billikens: Dion Wiley (thigh) and Javon Bess (ankle) did not practice Monday or Tuesday. Wiley will not play and Bess will be a game-time decision. ... Bess has taken over the team scoring lead with a 14.6 average. ... The Billikens rank 13th in the country in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 36.8 percent. ... SLU is outrebounding teams by an average of seven per game and has been led by Hasahn French with 7.5 per game.
About the Salukis: In their one game against an Atlantic 10 team, SIUC lost to Massachusetts 84-62 at a tournament in Las Vegas. ... Former Billiken Marcus Bartley is a starter and is averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 assists. He has made 48.6 percent of his 3-pointers. ... During their three-game win streak, the Salukis are shooting 58 percent. ... Armon Fletcher (Edwardsville) has averaged 22 points and 8.5 rebounds in the last two games.