The Madness in The Windy City: A guide to the Chicago Midwest Regional
CHICAGO – Don’t feel so bad about the fact that not a single Division I team from the Land of Lincoln made the Men’s NCAA Tournament.
At this point you should be used to it, considering it’s been three years since anyone got into the “Big Dance” from Illinois. But thanks to a bid a few years ago by the Big Ten, some March Madness will indeed come to the Windy City.
This weekend Chicago will host the Midwest Regional-Four teams bidding for one spot in the Final Four next week in Houston.
While none of the school are close to the United Center in distance (Iowa State is the closest at 355.5 miles), there are some connections between the Cyclones, Virginia, Syracuse and Gonzaga that give fans here a reason to pay attention outside of the usual drama that comes with a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 game.
TWO LOCALS COME TO TOWN
There are just two players on the rosters of the four teams who hail from the state and both of them are Cyclones.
The first is Abdel Nader, a senior from Skokie who played his high school basketball at Niles North. He actually started out playing his college basketball closer to home at Northern Illinois for two years and led the Huskies in scoring in the 2012-2013 season with 13.1 points per game.
He sat out the next year to transfer to Iowa State and last year averaged 16.4 minutes a game, scoring 5.8 points and snagging 2.8 rebounds per game. Nader has been a much bigger part of the Cyclones’ success this season as he started all 34 games, averaging 13.2 points and five rebounds per game.
Originally Nader came to Skokie from Egypt where he lived until his was three. The Des Moines Register did a profile of Nader’s transition from Egypt to America and his years in basketball.
Another Cyclone from Illinois is forward Stuart Nezlek who has played in seven games this season.
Speaking of the Cyclones, they should feel at home when they take the floor at the United Center this weekend.
After all the host is a familiar face to everyone in the Iowa State family.
Fred Hoiberg, who played basketball for the Cyclones before his career in the NBA and later coached the team from 2010-2015, is the head coach of the Chicago Bulls who will vacate the venue this weekend to allow for the NCAA Regional.
A legend in Ames, Hoiberg had his number 32 retired after his playing days after starting nearly all four years of his career and scoring 4,278 points. He got his nickname “The Mayor” because he was so popular that he actually got write-in votes in the City of Ames race in 1993.
As a coach, Hoiberg was 115-56 in five years with the Cyclones, taking them to four-straight NCAA Tournaments along with a Sweet 16 in 2014. A majority of the current roster was recruited by or were coached by Hoiberg before he took the Bulls’ job last summer.
On Wednesday he met with the Iowa State team and their new head coach Steve Prohm, who was the lead assistant for Hoiberg last season.
A RARE MOMENT FOR CHICAGO BASKETBALL FANS
While a major city with a strong college basketball history, the NCAA Tournament’s appearances in the Chicago area have been a little more scarce than fans might believe.
Since the tournament began in 1939, the area has hosted a tournament round just 18 times. Only six times has Chicagoland hosted the Regional round and this weekends will be the first in the city proper since Chicago Stadium hosted the event in 1953.
The last time it was in the area was 2005 when Illinois beat UW-Milwaukee and then completed a historic comeback over Arizona to earn a spot in the Final Four.
In 1953 the first regional was held with Indiana earning the Final Four berth at Chicago Stadium. Iowa (1955), Louisville (1959) and Dayton (1967) all punched their ticket to the National Semifinal with regional wins at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena.
CAN THE CAVS HOLD SERVE?
Despite all of the chaos of the first two rounds of the tournament, there is a bit of order when it comes to the top seeds in the tournament.
All of the No. 1 seeds have made it through the first two rounds of the tournament and into the Sweet 16. That includes Virginia, who comes to Chicago after wins over Hampton and Butler.
The Cavaliers are looking for their first Final Four appearance since 1984 after two years of frustration as a high seed. In 2014 Virginia made the Sweet 16 as the top seed but lost to Michigan State while last year’s run as the two seed was also ended by the Spartans, this time in the round of 32.
Is there any history on Tony Bennett’s side this week? We’ll it’s a bit unusual. Virginia also made the Final Four during the 1981 season when they made played one of their few games in Chicago in their history.
That came at the Rosemont Horizon against Notre Dame in a neutral site game when Ralph Sampson and the Cavaliers were No. 1 in the country. But the Irish won the game 57-56 on a last second jumper by Orlando Woolridge.
HOPE FOR THE UPSTARTS?
The essence of March Madness rests in the Midwest Regional at the United Center.
In the first game of Friday, you have the way it should have gone. No. 1 seed Virginia will meet No. 4 Iowa State in the first regional semifinal game, one which the seeds won the games they were supposed to in the first two rounds to produce the selection committee’s desired match-up.
On the other side, it’s the exact opposite. Tradition-heavy Syracuse barely made the tournament after losing five of their last six games of the regular season and settled with a tenth-seed in the tournament. But a surprise win over seventh-seed Dayton and a victory over upstart Middle Tennessee State makes the orange the 24th team to reach the Sweet 16 as a 10th seed.
Gonzaga knocked out a pair of higher-seeded teams in Seton Hall (sixth-seed) and Utah (third-seed) en route to Chicago. It’s the 20th time the No. 11 seed has made it to the Sweet 16.
But taking two more steps would make these upstarts historic. Should Syracuse win two games, they would be the first tenth seed ever to reach a Final Four in tournament history. As for Gonzaga, they would join LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) as 11th-seeds to reach the National Semifinal.