By Adam Hoge –
It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense, but has never gained any steam.
Why don’t all of the Chicago-area college basketball teams play each other in a yearly challenge?
On the surface it might seem like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of scheduling logistics and recruiting interests that prevent the idea from becoming reality. Still, at least two Chicago-area head coaches are interested in a yearly challenge involving Northwestern, DePaul, UIC, Loyola and Chicago State.
“It’s an interesting idea. I’m sure there are logistics that have to be worked out or can or cannot be worked out, but sure, I’d be interested,” new DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell said Tuesday at a downtown luncheon involving all five Chicago-area schools.
“It’s probably harder for a Northwestern or DePaul to do it than us,” Loyola head coach Jim Whitesell said. “A classic one day would be great. Yeah, I think it would be a real positive thing.”
Whitesell brought up some specific scheduling problems that would make it hard to organize such an event. For one, Northwestern and DePaul already participate in challenges against other conferences and most coaches dislike not having control over the scheduling of a non-conference game each season. Another problem is that the Horizon League — which both Loyola and UIC are a part of — start their conference seasons in early December, almost a month earlier than Northwestern and DePaul.
And then there are recruiting issues, which one could argue are limited to Northwestern, far and away the best of “The Chicago Five” (as Purnell called it Tuesday). The Wildcats have a recruiting edge over the other four schools because they play in the Big Ten and a loss against Loyola or UIC could affect recruiting in a negative manner. The counter argument of course is that a win would cement a recruiting advantage and Northwestern has played DePaul, Chicago State and even UIC in recent years.
For now, we are stuck with “The Chicago Five” scheduling their own games against each other. This season that includes DePaul playing both Chicago State (Nov. 14) and Loyola (Dec. 18) and of course Loyola and UIC facing each other twice in Horizon League play.
Here’s a quick look at all five Chicago-area teams as they head into the 2010-11 season:
The Wildcats have a great chance to earn an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in school history. After winning 20 games last season and returning every significant player but Jeremy Nash, Northwestern is in great shape to have a special season. Head coach Bill Carmody praised point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson at Tuesday’s luncheon, saying the senior has only had five bad practices in his entire career. He also told me he believes junior guard John Shurna is one of the most underrated players in the entire country.
So what is standing in Northwestern’s way? Well, two things, and they go hand-in-hand. The Big Ten is stacked this season and Northwestern always has problems rebounding the basketball in conference play. The good teams from last season are even better and the middle-of-the-road teams are now good too (including Northwestern). There are nine teams that could end up in a post-season tournament and there’s a great chance seven of them will be in the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats want to be one of those seven teams, they have to do a better job of rebounding and Carmody admitted Tuesday it’s still a concern.
“I don’t know, get in the weight room and not feed them for a couple of weeks so they get hungry,” Carmody said when I asked him about what his players can do to get better at rebounding. “People have rebounding drills, you just emphasize it somehow.”
No one is expecting Oliver Purnell to turn the Blue Demons around this season. In all honesty, 10 wins would probably be a good season. Purnell said Tuesday that his teams at Dayton and Clemson took about a year and a half to two years to grasp the system and turn it around. So far at DePaul, he has praised the players and said this group of players has done the best job of working hard than any other team he has coached.
“Our guys are coming along. I think one of the reasons why they are coming along is because they’re trying to do everything we are asking them to do. They aren’t fighting it at all. They’re all in with two feet and that’s going to help speed up the process,” Purnell said.
New head coach Howard Moore is already making an impact at UIC as he has secured two commitments from Chicago Public League players. He played in the Public League and knows this city well. But Moore’s biggest challenge with those players will be getting them to understand his system. He comes to UIC from Wisconsin where the Badgers ran a slow, but very effective swing offense. While in Madison, Moore recruited a number of Chicago-area kids into the system and for the most part, it worked.
One thing you are guaranteed to see from Moore’s teams is a stifling man-to-man defense that will take priority over offense. It might take some players a year or two to get used to Moore’s type of play, but it’s the staple of why Wisconsin has been to 12 straight NCAA Tournaments despite lacking the talent of the nation’s elite programs.
Moore is incredibly happy to be back in his hometown and he’s going to introduce Chicago to a style of play the city isn’t necessarily used to.
“I can’t be any more pleased with the way things are going and the fact that we are here. Now we just need to roll up our sleeves and get after it,” Moore said.
The Ramblers have a chance for a breakthrough season in Jim Whitesell’s seventh year as head coach. Loyola returns all five starters and the Horizon League’s sixth man of the year from a team that went 14-16 last season.
The key for Loyola is to play better in the Horizon League. The Ramblers only won five conference games last season, which spoiled a decent start to the season.
Talk about tough schedule. The Cougars only play two home non-conference games and start with four road games against DePaul, Notre Dame, BYU and St. Mary’s. They also have a trip to Hawai’i later in December.
Tracy Dildy takes over a team that only won nine games a year ago and has never made a post-season appearance. The good news is that the Cougars have seven seniors on the team this season including forward Carl Montgomery who led the team in scoring last season with 13.4 points per game.
It will most likely be a tough start to the season for the Cougars who went 0-17 on the road last season. But if this experienced group can get better throughout the year, you can’t rule out a late run through the Great West Conference Tournament in March.