Even without a team, Chicago area fans still can find interest in NCAA Tournament
CHICAGO – Finding alternate angles for March Madness has become a recent tradition for college basketball fans with a keen interest in teams that play within the state.
Not one school from Illinois made the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year. For squads playing inside the limits of Chicago, that drought is now at 11 years. Not since UIC and DePaul qualified in 2004 has their been any madness in the Windy City outside of St. Patrick’s Day Weekend.
Despite the lack of local teams there remains a healthy amount of reasons for people in Chicago and Northwest Indiana to have some things that people can get fired up about as the NCAA Tournament kicks off this week.
Look To The East
The direct neighbors to the East-the State of Indiana-got five teams into the “Big Dance” after getting shutout just a season ago.
It starts with Notre Dame who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day Weekend in style by beating up the standard bearers of the ACC. The Irish took down 2nd-ranked Duke and then 19th-ranked North Carolina in Greensboro to win their first league tournament title.
Mike Brey’s 11th-ranked Irish now head to Pittsburgh as a third seed and will face Northeastern on Thursday. They will try to snap some recent losing ways in the “Big Dance”-the Irish have lost three-straight in the tournament and haven’t advance to the Sweet 16 since 2003.
Another one of those Hoosier State teams is Northwest Indiana’s Valparaiso, who received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Horizon League Tournament Championship.
They enter as a 13th seed and will Face Maryland on Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The only wins the Crusaders have in the NCAA Tournament came in 1998 when they made a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.
The highlight was an upset win over Ole Miss in Oklahoma City in one of the iconic moments of the tournament itself. The man who made the game-winning three pointer that has been replayed time and time again? Current Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew, who is in his second NCAA Tournament as a head coach.
The Homegrown Phenom
Much farther to the East and a little bit south, a former CPL player is enjoying the best freshman season in college basketball.
No, he’s not at Kentucky.
That’s Duke freshman center and former Whitney Young star Jahlil Okafor who made some ACC history during his first season in the league. Okafor has made the transition from Dolphin to Devil look a little too easy averaging 17.7 points and 9 rebounds a game.
He became the first freshman in ACC history to win its regular season MVP Award and is a candidate for various national player of the year honors. Thanks to Okafor’s efforts Duke lost just three times all season and will be a No. 1 seed in the South Region, opening up tournament play against the winner of the North Florida/Robert Morris play-in game in Dayton.
Enjoy all of those games Okafor plays because they’ll probably be his last for the Blue Devils. The center is projected to leave Duke after this year and be the first pick of the NBA Draft in June.
Let’s Be Frank
Another Chicago area native also will be front and center with a #1 seed this NCAA Tournament. His exploits have been done a little closer to home.
Big Ten MVP Frank Kaminsky-who grew up in Lisle and was a standout at Benet Academy-leads Wisconsin to Omaha as the top seed in the West Region where they will open up play Friday against Coastal Carolina.
The seven-foot forward has come into own the past two years in Madison. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection his junior season by averaging 13.2 points per game and he bested that by scoring 18.2 a contest this past season. He also picked up eight rebound a game and helped the Badgers to a 16-2 conference record and an outright regular season title.
Kaminsky had 19 points in Wisconsin’s Big Ten Tournament Championship Game triumph over Michigan State Sunday, yet he’s not the only one on the team with a Chicago-area connection.
His teammate Duje Dukan, who scored 11 points in the win over the Spartans, is from Deerfield and like Kaminsky shared a connection with the Chicago Bulls. Dukan’s father, Ivica, is the Director of International Scouting for the team and Duje himself was a ballboy for the Bulls.
Frank’s uncle Jim Stack worked in the team’s front office for many years while his aunt Karen Stack was the director of basketball administration for the Bulls.
For the record their remain two Division I teams that will continue playing this week.
They are in the NIT and CBI.
Illinois finished on the outside of the NCAA Tournament but they made the field for the secondary tournament and will face Alabama on the road Tuesday at 8 P.M. The Illini might have had a higher seed and hosted games if not for the renovations at the State Farm Center that have, at the moment, reduced the seats to rubble.
Meanwhile Illinois State will get a chance to host an NIT game at Redbird Arena in Normal. They’ll host Green Bay on Wednesday as they play in their 13th NIT in program history.
Loyala is back in the postseason for the first time since 1985 in the CBI Tournament. They’ll host Rider on Tuesday at Gentile Arena.