By Daniel I. Dorfman–
We are now at the start of the March Madness. We gather around our computers and smartphones (and for those of us truly in the Dark Ages, a non-HDTV) and hope our teams have a successful run so we can get the unfiltered thrill that only comes with the purity of college basketball. OK, that sentence is about as believable as the 2011 World Series will be a matchup between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals. Still, no matter how much you have invested financially, the tournament is a fun three weeks. It is just too bad this year’s tournament is a bitter reminder of the state of Chicago college basketball.
Chicago will have as much representation in this tournament as Sioux City, Iowa and who knows, I may have just insulted Sioux City.
From Crane Kenney having the Cubs’ dugout sprinkled with holy water before a playoff game, to the Bears orange uniform tops to Terry Bevington, Chicago has seen its share of embarrassments in recent times, but today’s college basketball situation is really ridiculous.
DePaul and UIC were hopeless this season. Loyola fired their coach on Monday and while Northwestern made the NIT, this was the year there were hopes of a first trip to the NCAAs for the Wildcats. Instead, after forward Kevin Coble left the team under strange circumstances, Northwestern struggled to an 18 –13 record, but only 7-11 in the Big Ten.
The overall landscape is so anemic that you can get a fair distance away from the city and still find trouble as Bradley and NIU have both jettisoned their coaches after this season.
Tomorrow marks the 32nd anniversary of DePaul making its only Final Four appearance that led to some great regular seasons when names like Aguirre, Cummings and Corbin dotted the roster. Now we have the sad sight of lack of interest in DePaul indicated by near empty houses at Allstate Arena. If the administration wants to slam its head against a wall playing in the Big East just to cash the big checks that come with the conference, that is their right. But it is painful seeing a once proud basketball tradition sullied.
No one should realistically expect the Blue Demons to return to the pre-ESPN dominated days when DePaul took advantage of the nationwide WGN-TV cable audience to transform itself a college basketball powerhouse. But St. John’s and Notre Dame have shown it is possible to fall off the basketball radar and come back. Something is wrong when San Diego St. can be a second seed in the tournament, but DePaul has to aim high just to be mediocre.
In Evanston, my friend Joe Ruklick was as a backup to Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA who played for the Wildcats on one of the best teams in recent history. Unfortunately, Joe played at Northwestern during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Ruklick, now 72, is pessimistic that he ever will see Northwestern win a Big Ten title, citing Northwestern has gone 43 years consecutive years without a winning Big Ten season. It is hard to see where he will be proven wrong anytime soon.
I acknowledge recruiting at Northwestern is difficult due to the tighter academic requirements, but the football program has become competitive in the Big Ten. Why can’t the same be said about basketball?
Loyola, which hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 1985, is at least moving in the right direction by improving its facilities. It would be nice to see that mindset in place right now at DePaul and Northwestern which both play in arenas that don’t do the respective programs any favors.
Chicago has never been a great college basketball city, but should it be this bad? There is talent at the high school levels, a large population base and at least for DePaul and Northwestern, there is pretty good TV exposure. To expect all the programs to be thriving at once is not realistic, but there shouldn’t be such collective ineptitude.
Let’s hope the six NCAA tournament games played at the United Center this weekend are fun, because it seems that is about as close to interesting college basketball we are going to have around here for a while.
Do you agree with Daniel? Post your comments below.
Daniel I. Dorfman is a local freelance writer who has written and reported for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe among many other nationally prominent broadcast, online and print media organizations. He is also a researcher for 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DanDorfman To read more of Daniel’s blogs click here.