Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Who do we call the “home” team this time of college basketball season?

We’re at the point of the year where much public attention will be spewed upon the NCAA men’s basketball tourney for Division I, yet we here in the Land of Lincoln don’t have an obvious team to root for.

Now I’m sure there are many Chicagoans who went to college at various places across the country who can turn to their alma maters that were worth anything this past season to root for.

YET FOR THOSE of us looking for a local team, there isn’t much of anything. No Illinois school was able to get a bid to partake in the tourney.

Admittedly, Valparaiso University in Indiana is on the outermost southeast fringe of what could be called the Chicago area, although I’m sure people living north of 95th Street would prefer think of it as alien turf. And some people like to think of Notre Dame as an area college, while just as many detest the very concept.

But the Hoosiers definitely got more on us this time of year – Indiana U. and Purdue also made it while the west side of State Line Road got nothing.

Those of us whose sporting attention isn’t totally dominated by spring training baseball and fantasies of that all-Chicago World Series taking place this year will have to look to the so-called lesser college basketball tournaments.

WITHIN THE CHICAGO area, there is Loyola University which got an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational. Where they will play their first (and potentially only) game Tuesday night against Rider College, and we likely will hear many repeats of how the Ramblers won the whole thing back in 1963!

There also will be Tuesday night basketball for the University of Illinois in Urbana, which got selected to participate in the National Invitational Tournament – which once was a big deal but now comes across as the ultimate consolation prize for failing to make it to the NCAA Division I tourney.

But they get to play the University of Alabama, which is noteworthy because they recently fired their basketball coach. Just BEFORE getting selected for the NIT.

I’m sure on a certain level, it would be a more intriguing story if Alabama were able to achieve some success under these circumstances. Could this mean the sporting nation would view a Fighting Illini victory as the ultimate bummer – completely ruining the story line?

I ALSO CAN’T see much enthusiasm for the other Illinois-based school that made it to the NIT – Illinois State University in Normal, which on Wednesday will have its first tournament game against the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Will anyone (outside of alumni with fond memories of Garcia’s pizza) get worked up rooting for a team whose own NCAA tourney dreams came crashing down with a loss in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to the University of Northern Iowa (which did get the NCAA bid)?

Perhaps if we pretend to ourselves that the team from Green Bay is the Packers, then we could get Chicagoans to care. Otherwise, I just don’t see it happening.

We may wind up finding a better tale if we drop down to the NCAA Division III level, where their national tourney began a couple of weeks ago. They already are down to their “final four” schools (out of 64) playing for a national title.

AND THERE, WE find an Illinois-based school with a serious shot at winning a championship – the Rock Island-based Augustana University, which will play Babson College Friday and possibly the winner of Virginia Wesleyan/University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for the championship on Saturday.

Those of us with an Illinois rooting interest may have to look to the banks of the Mississippi River to find a local team to cheer for, although I’ll have to confess to feeling some confusion about this prospect.

The Illinois Wesleyan University alum in me knows of Augustana because the two schools both play in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (and the Vikings beat IWU in the conference tournament last month), while the Titans’ own national title dreams fell short last weekend with a loss to Stevens Point.

If those two schools make it to the title game Saturday in Salem, Va., it really would become a choice of which one’s victory would annoy me the least. It also could have me looking forward to the coming of a new baseball season all the more.


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