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The Billikens and Salukis battle at Chaifetz Arena

Salukis Ronnie Suggs Jr. has the ball knocked away by Billikens Jordan Goodwin in the second half on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, during the game between the St. Louis Billikens and the Southern Illinois Salukis at the Chaifetz Arena. Goodwin was charged with a foul when he tried to retrieve the loose ball. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Outmanned SIU Carbondale battled SLU until the closing minutes Sunday afternoon in their 69-60 road loss.

Had the Salukis still had standout point guard Aaron Cook in the lineup, they might have stayed within upset range of the Billikens all the way until the buzzer. Cook, a senior who starred locally at Westminster Christian, is averaging 15 points, 3.3 assists and 3.2 steals per game.

But he is sidelined until January with a broken hand. His absence forced senior Eric McGill and freshman Lance Jones to run point for the Salukis. And while they got plenty of easy baskets, to the chagrin of SLU coach Travis Ford, they also forced up plenty of ugly air balls against the SLU defense as the shot clock expired.

On the plus side, graduate transfers have made the Salukis more viable. SIU Carbondale center Barret Benson, previously at Northwestern, scored 16 points against bulldozing Billiken Hasahn French.

And Ronnie Suggs, who played one year at Mizzou after two seasons at Bradley, was able to stick with Jordan Goodwin for a while. But both Goodwin (14 points, 19 rebounds) and French (15 points, nine rebounds) ultimately imposed their will in this game.

The Salukis will get Cook back in the middle of their Missouri Valley Conference season, but his absence will be felt in their regional matchups at Missouri and at home against Southeast Missouri later this month.

Here is how the area's Division I programs stack up:

1. SLU (7-1)

Goodwin also took over (20 points, 14 rebounds) as the Billikens won at Boston College 64-54 to add a precious road victory to their resumé. In his last three games Goodwin has scored 47 points and grabbed 46 rebounds. Can anybody keep this man off the offensive boards? Apparently not. Also notable for SLU: Forward Javonte Perkins has scored 37 points in his last three games, including 18 against the Salukis while helping the Billikens pull away.

2. Illinois (6-1)

Poor Lindenwood brought an undersized lineup to Champaign and took a 117-65 beating from the Illini. This rout came on the heels of the Illini's 120-71 drubbing of overmatched Hampton. Apparently Illini coach Brad Underwood felt the need to build his team's offensive confidence by gifting his team one of the worst non-conference schedules among Power 5 conference schools.

3. Missouri (4-3)

The Tigers are playing an ambitious non-conference schedule. That gives them a chance to build a case for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. But they must actually beat some of those quality opponents to achieve that goal — and the Tigers are 0-3 on that front. They fell behind 15-3 in losses to Butler and Oklahoma in Kansas City, then toughened up on defense to become competitive in those games. But their offensive inefficiency kept them from completing their comeback bids. Dru Smith played well against Butler (19 points, four assists) and Mark Smith caught fire against Oklahoma (18 points, eight rebounds), but Mizzou needs these junior guards to actually play well in the same game.

4. Missouri State (3-5)

The Bears stepped up in class against LSU and took a 73-58 beating as their non-conference woes continue. Seniors Keandre Cook and Tulio Da Silva combined for 33 points in that loss. Injuries to forwards Gaige Prim and Jared Ridder have set the team back, but poor offensive chemistry has led to one of the nation's worst assists-to-turnovers ratios. Coach Dana Ford loaded up his roster with talented transfers who aren't fitting together well. "You can't not care about valuing the ball and expect to beat good teams," Ford said after the Bears' loss to LSU. "It's like we're just OK with giving the game to the other team."

5. SIU Carbondale (3-5): First-year Salukis coach Bryan Mullins kicked off his regime by landing a recruiting jewel. Freshman forward Marcus Domask appears primed to have an epic career in the MVC. He produced 18 points, five assists and five rebounds in a 64-48 victory over North Carolina Central, then followed that effort with 21 points, five assists and five rebounds against SLU. Domask features a crafty low-post game and he is equally comfortable operating out on the perimeter.

6. SEMO (3-4): The Redhawks suffered losses to Cal State Fullerton (64-57) and Santa Clara (87-75) in the Cable Car Classic before finishing with a 66-51 victory over Denver. Sophomore point guard Alex Caldwell starred against Santa Clara (16 points, four assists, five steals) and Denver (16 points, three steals). JUCO transfer forward Darrious Agnew produced 15 points and six rebounds off the bench against Fullerton. Caldwell has 55 points in his last four games after scoring just 24 in his first three this season.

7. SIU Edwardsville (2-6): Scoring remains a challenge for the Cougars under first-year coach Brian Barone. After eight games nobody on his team is averaging double figures. The Cougars ventured to the West Coast during their Thanksgiving break and absorbed losses at Pacific (78-50) and UC Riverside (69-51). Guard Iziah James scored a career-high 14 points coming off the bench at Riverside. James started his career at Cal Poly, then played at Indian Hills Community College last season before signing with the Cougars.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.