Hickman graduate fills ‘toughest role’

Jamaal Foster helped Southern Illinois secure an at-large bid in a key win against Evansville.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:45 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

A look at Jamaal Foster’s stats might make one wonder why coaches can’t stop gushing about the Southern Illinois forward.

The Hickman graduate has averaged seven minutes per game in his freshman season for the Salukis, who face St. Mary’s (Calif.) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Oklahoma City.

A redshirt last season, Foster is scoring a paltry 1.1 points and pulling down 1.0 rebound. He has added only four assists, three blocks and two steals all season.

But the coaches aren’t looking at Foster’s stats when they heap praise upon him. They’re looking at his heart.

“Jamaal has the toughest role on the team, being the 10th man off the bench,” SIU assistant coach Rodney Watson said. “He has to do all the dirty work. But he’s had an incredible year. And all the while his attitude is the same.”

That attitude is to never stop preparing, even if Foster knows he’s not likely to play much. Watson said Foster spends extra time in the weight room and regularly is among the first to practice and last to leave. Foster said he watches tape of opponents and reads scouting reports before each game, though he knows there’s a chance he might not play. He hasn’t played in 10 games this season.

The coaches note that work ethic can be rare, especially among players who go from starters in high school to bench warmers in college. But it’s a work ethic Foster insists he adopted at a young age.

“I think it just comes from my family,” he said. “They always made me work hard for everything. Nothing was ever handed to me.”

After playing for the Hickman junior varsity as a freshman, Foster worked his way onto the varsity as a sophomore. Coming off the bench that season, he helped the Kewpies to their first district title in 10 years.

As a junior, Foster displayed the willingness to do the dirty work that makes teams win. He averaged 7.3 points per game that season, but added a team-high 9.3 rebounds and blocked a school-record 75 shots.

The Kewpies went 22-5 that season and duplicated that mark in Foster’s senior season, when he broke his own record by blocking 80 shots and averaged 8.3 points and 6.9 rebounds. Hickman advanced to the sectional round that season.

“Jamaal has a desire to please and do things well and excel,” Hickman coach Jim Sutherland said. “In some cases, that can be a negative because guys try too hard, but in Jamaal’s case it’s carried him a long way.”

The desire to excel on the court can cause great frustration for a player who spends most of each game sitting on the bench. But though Foster admits he aches to play more, he’s chosen to use his limited role as motivation.

“I know when my time comes, I have to be ready,” Foster said. “I have to impress to get coach to play me.”

Lowery will have no reservations putting Foster in Friday because he’s made the most of his limited time. During a game on Jan. 29 against Evansville, he contributed six points and four rebounds in 13 minutes, helping the Salukis snap a two-game losing streak.

Watson said the win was essential for a school in a mid-major conference that needed an at-large bid to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Then, Watson again started gushing about Foster’s desire, work ethic and commitment. And he made it clear those traits are major reasons Southern Illinois is in the tournament.

“Look around college basketball and look at all your chemistry problems,” Watson said. “All the teams with chemistry problems, they don’t have Jamaal Foster on their team.”

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