By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Chicago doesn’t have a basketball team in the Final Four.
But it almost always seems that there’s some Chicago in the Final Four’s basketball teams. And this year is no different.
So, with the national semifinal games set to tip off in Atlanta Saturday evening, here are some Chicago-related reasons to pay attention to all four teams involved from Michigan and Syracuse to Louisville and Wichita State.
Michigan: Tim Hardaway
The University of Michigan’s standout junior swingman Tim Hardaway Jr., grew up in Miami. But his namesake is pure Chicago.
Born in 1966 and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Tim Hardaway Sr. was the son of a city mail carrier and Donald Hardaway, a city playground star. At South Shore Park, Tim went on to become a playground legend himself, where as a diminutive point guard his playing style was compared to Windy City great Isaiah Thomas.
Hardaway went on the play prep ball at Carver High School before slipping under the local recruiting radar and signing with the University of Texas-El Paso. At UTEP under the tutelage of legendary coach Don Haskins, Hardaway refined his devastating crossover dribble – dubbed the “UTEP Two-Step” and was drafted in the first round by the Golden State Warriors.
In the NBA, he became part of the “Run TMC” sensation along with fellow Golden State stars Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullins, ultimately enjoying a 14-year NBA career with five teams.
Louisville: Wayne Blackshear
A powerful – but injury-plagued – sophomore swingman for Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Blackshear was a 2011 McDonald’s All-American out of Chicago’s Morgan Park High School after starting his prep career at Curie.
In a practice prior to the McDonald’s game, however, Blackshear dislocated his left shoulder, requiring surgery. At Louisville, he then suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which also required surgery.
This season, Blackshear has averaged 7.8 points per game for the Cardinals as he still works to round back into the player who once had his high school coach, Nick Irvin, tell him that he didn’t think he could score 50 points in a game.
Irvin was right. Blackshear scored 56 against Chicago Ellison instead.
Wichita State: Fred Van Vleet
The Shockers’ freshman point guard doesn’t hail from Chicago, but his hometown of Rockford is close enough to foster local pride.
Not to mention, family pride.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fred’s mother, Susan Van Vleet told the Rockford Register-Star this week, describing her son’s NCAA Tournament run. “You wish for it. You hope for it. You dream for it. But you just don’t expect it. It’s something you want for your kids, but how often does it really happen?”
A former All-Stater at Rockford Auburn, Van Vleet led his team to the Class 4A State Finals during high school. Tonight, he’ll lead his team against the Louisville Cardinals in the Final Four.
Unfortunately, with work and two other children, ages 5 and 18 months, Susan Van Vleet won’t be able to attend the game in Atlanta. But she did make it to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles before needing to head back home for the Elite Eight.
“Then I had to come home for Easter. I have two little ones who still believe in the Easter Bunny,” she said. “How could I not be here? Fred obviously wanted me to be there for him, but at the same time, he’s so unselfish and completely understood.”
Syracuse: Adrian Autry
With a roster almost exclusively comprised of players from the Eastern seaboard – Philadelphia is the western-most hometown of any Orange player – and a coaching staff made up of a bunch of SU alums, it’s tough to find a Chicago connection at Syracuse.
The best I can do is this: SU assistant coach Adrian Autry, a standout guard for coach Jim Boeheim from 1990-94, shares the same name with a former Northwestern standout running back — who isn’t related to Darnell Autry.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.