Last month Michael Rogner wrote about the state of college basketball in Los Angeles. I live in Chicago, and while the second city may be pretty far down the list where college ball is concerned, there are some exciting developments on the Horizon (did you catch that?).
The city’s current claims to fame pale in comparison to the rich history of L.A.’s longstanding hoops tradition. The Loyola Ramblers beat Cincinnati in 1963 to capture the city’s lone NCAA championship, and DePaul has made two trips to the Final Four (in 1943 and in 1979) to go with an NIT championship in 1945. Elsewhere and since it’s been mediocrity. Collectively the Chicago area’s six teams have made just four appearances in the NCAA tournament since 2000, and three of those were first-round losses with DePaul advancing to the second round in 2004. While some of the industry’s top scouts and coaches continue to make almost endless visits to Chicago’s hive of recruits (namely, Simeon, Morgan Park, and Young high schools, to name a few), the city’s own college teams are just beginning to again make inroads into their own recruiting base.
Four of the Chicago-area’s six D-I schools have undergone coaching changes since 2010, so the majority of these teams are in transition. Where do things stand now in the windy city? Is college hoops catching on in the hometown of Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Tim Hardaway?
Rogner didn’t rank the L.A. teams, but I’m doing rankings. I’ve listed Chicago’s six area teams according to their future potential for impact on a national level.
1. Northwestern (11-5)
Average home game attendance in 2010-2011: 5,291
This is the season the Wildcats were supposed to break their program-long NCAA tournament absence. Through their less-than-challenging non-con slate Northwestern went 10-2 with losses to certain NCAA Tournament teams Baylor and Creighton and earned wins over Seton Hall and LSU and over Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. Conference play has been less kind, of course, as the ‘Cats have now lost two of three, and both were heartbreakers: a one-point loss to Sullinger-killer Illinois and in overtime at Michigan. They easily handled Penn State.
Still, Jerry Palm thinks that if the tournament started today, Northwestern would earn an at-large bid for the first time in Bill Carmody’s 10 seasons at NU. The ‘Cats have answered the one question for the season in replacing Juice Thompson at point guard with more-than-capable freshman Dave Sobolewski whose assist rate (20.1 percent) and turnover rate (12.1 percent) are nationally ranked — he brings hope for the future under Carmody’s Princeton offense. Senior John Shurna will be much harder to replace. His offensive rating (111.5) is third only to Jared Sullinger and Robbie Hummel among Big Ten players with at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions.
As a team the Wildcats have the sixth-most efficient offense in the Big Ten with 1.11 points per possession, and a less glamorous 11th-most-efficient defense that allows 0.98 ppp.
Northwestern’s national appeal seems short-term at best, because of the difficulty they’ll face in replacing Shurna and starting big man Luka Mirkovic next season.
2. DePaul (10-6)
Average home game attendance in 2010-2011: 7,676
Second-year head coach Oliver Purnell is the face of change at DePaul. After the Blue Demons accomplished nothing too exciting in non-conference play, they took down struggling Pitt for just the second time in program history a week ago.
Most importantly though, DePaul has solid youth in former Big East rookie of the year, sophomore Cleveland Melvin, and sophomore Brandon Young, whose assist rate (32.3) is among the Big East’s top eight. The Blue Demons are also in the mix for several top Chicago recruits, including Kendrick Nunn — that may be the best sign of all.
For now DePaul exists well outside the Big East’s elite teams, held back mostly by their poor defense that allows a league-worst 1.03 ppp.
3. UIC (5-11)
Average home game attendance in 2010-2011: 3,099
When Wisconsin assistant Howard Moore took over UIC just months before the start of the 2010-2011 season, the program was in disarray, with little in the way of recruiting prospects or young leadership. Still, the Flames parlayed their remaining senior returners into an upset victory over then-No. 12 Illinois to highlight Moore’s first season.
This year the Flames are focused on shaping their young roster, and learning Moore’s swing-based offensive scheme, which attacking JUCO transfer Gary Talton appears well-suited to. The Flames lose the final vestiges of former coach Jimmy Collins after this season when senior rebounds-leaders Darrin Williams and Paris Carter graduate. Their production will be difficult to replace — both are nationally ranked in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates.
The Flames host cross-town Horizon League rival Loyola on Saturday with some type of supremacy on the line.
4. Loyola (5-11)
Average home game attendance in 2010-2011: 2,428
First-year head coach Porter Moser came to Loyola in the offseason from St. Louis, where he was an assistant under Rick Majerus, and promptly lost several returning players to injury for the season. Starting the year with just eight scholarshiped players, Moser’s team managed wins over Fordham, Canisius and Toledo, but is still the only winless team in Horizon League play.
Moser loses starters Jordan Hicks, Walt Gibler and would-be starter Courtney Stanley after this season and the rebuilding continues. Sophomore PG Denzel Brito has shown flashes of brilliance, and it’ reflected in his assist rate. He’s averaging an assistant in 27.1 percent of his team’s possessions, which is a better indicator of value when your team averages a super slow 60.2 possessions per game.
5. Northern Illinois (1-13)
Average home game attendance in 2010-2011: 1,165
New NIU head coach Mark Montgomery — Tom Izzo’s former right-hand man — inherited a roster in shambles when he assumed the title before the start of the season. Eight players are freshman or sophomores, including four starters, and that’s reflected in their 1-13 record and 339th-place Pomeroy ranking.
Still, there’s a lot of years of bonding and building ahead for this young squad that is ably led and ably recruiting.
6. Chicago State (0-16)
Average home game attendance in 2010-2011: 1,179
Beginning with their first season of Division-I basketball in 1984-1985, the Cougars went through nine head coaches before shedding their independence and joining the Great West Conference for the 2008-2009 season under then-head coach Benjy Taylor. That was also CSU’s last winning season — they went 19-13 that year, and none of that team’s roster remains.
In 2010 former top UIC assistant Tracy Dildy left his post to take over as head coach at CSU. The Cougars won six games in his first year (including two against non-D-I teams) and finished with the worst defense in all of basketball (1.21 ppp allowed) and the fifth-worst offense (0.84 ppp). They finished last season rated worse than infamous Centenary at 344th overall.
The Cougars are currently one of only three winless teams in D-I. It doesn’t help that the NCAA banned Chicago State from postseason play and cut two scholarships after the program’s third straight season of APR under-performance. That’s where change needs to start for this failing program.