Thursday, March 20, 2008

Division III gives Chicago basketball fans their only Illinois-based rooting interest in '08

For those of us from Chicago who root for an Illinois-based team come NCAA college basketball tournament time, this year has to be downright depressing. Not one of the universities that play men’s basketball at the Division I level managed to qualify.

While Illinois State and Southern Illinois universities both managed to qualify for the NIT, the second-rate nature of that tourney will keep all but the most hard-core alums from caring whether the Redbirds and Salukis manage to win.

I WOULD ARGUE that for Illinois residents, the superior fan experience this year belongs to a school at the Division III level – and chances are good you missed the story.

For while the NCAA Division I tournament is just getting under way beginning Thursday, the Division III tournament has been underway for weeks already, and one Illinois-based school’s team managed to make it to the Elite Eight.

So in the interest of fairness, we all ought to take a look at what was accomplished by the Wheaton Thunder, the DuPage County-based college that likes to brag it is the alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham and former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Thunder fan (although I’ve seen enough Wheaton College games going far enough back to when the school’s teams were called the Crusaders). I am an alumnus of Illinois Wesleyan University, which plays in the very same College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin as Wheaton

SO WHEN THE Division III tourney began March 7-8, there were two Illinois-based schools playing for a national title – Wheaton and Augustana University, which was the conference champion.

Augustana got knocked off early in the tourney, but Wheaton managed to survive until Saturday, when they lost to Hope College, playing in Hope’s home arena in Holland, Mich.

Why is it that I can say I was taking some interest in Wheaton? It is because I know in my heart that the IWU Titans this season were a superior team. Just how Wheaton got an at-large bid to go to the tournament while Wesleyan got to stay at home is something that can still get me outraged.

After all, the Titans beat the Thunder twice during the conference season, and then again in the first round of the CCIW conference tournament.

KNOWING THAT THE “Fighting Titans” are capable of holding their own against a team that managed to survive so long in the Division III tournament this year makes me all the more optimistic that next season, IWU will manage to qualify and perhaps even have a chance to win the whole thing.

Yes, I’m greedy. Four “final four” appearances in the past 11 years (and one Division III title back in 1997) is not enough. Call it the mentality of a Yankees fan, if you will, but I’d like to see my alma mater make another trip to Salem, Va., (the regular site for the Division III tournament, unlike the revolving locations for the Division I tourney).

Watching Wheaton not only gave me an “Illinois” school to root for, it gave me optimism that I’m not delusional in thinking that “my school” can win something again in the near future.

Now some people might ask me why I’m snubbing women’s athletics. They might wonder why I don’t pay attention to any Illinois schools that had women’s teams continue to play.

ACTUALLY, I WAS prepared to. IWU’s women’s team won their conference championship and made it to the women’s Division III tournament, but then got knocked out in the first round.

It makes me wonder about the ideal dream – Fighting Titan men’s and women’s teams managing to win national titles in the same year.

Perhaps my alma mater could become the Illinois-based, Division III equivalent of the University of Connecticut, which pulled off this very trick in 2004, when both of their basketball teams won their respective Division I tourneys.

Some people might wonder if it is ridiculous to see these college sports tournaments so personally. After all, Illinois Wesleyan is a place that hasn’t been a part of my daily life in nearly 21 years and it has been eight years since I last set foot on campus.

YET TO ME, it is a place that helped inspire me to accomplish much of what I have done in life. And having a personal rooting interest is what makes a college sports tournament interesting to begin with.

I can’t see the point of paying any attention to a 64-team tourney where there is nothing that connects me to any of the schools. For those people who just want to view college basketball as the National Basketball Association’s version of minor league baseball, that really defeats the purpose of college sports by trying to change them into a second-rate version of the NBA.

The energy and enthusiasm of player and fan alike at the smaller level schools is what makes their game so appealing, even if you do wind up seeing the talents of players who obviously devoted a significant portion of their life to practicing their skills dribbling and shooting a basketball – but can’t play at the highest levels because life’s cruel irony cut off their growth spurt at 5-foot, 6-inches or so. (Seriously, the major difference between Division I elite programs and Division III is that 7-footers are scarce at the lower level).

At the Division III level, you get the ideal of student/athlete that the Ivy League schools would like to think they still represent.

THERE’S ONE OTHER reason I prefer the Division III tourney – it has not become a television-dominated spectacle. It has already been underway for two weeks, and will come to an end Saturday, with either Amherst, Hope, Ursinius or Washington universities taking home a national title.

By comparison, the Division I tourney is just getting underway (even though the March in “March Madness” is two-thirds of the way over), and will wind up stretching out so long that it will run into baseball season – stealing attention away from the truly significant experience of professional sports – baseball’s Opening Day, when even Chicago Cubs fans can dream about their team winning a pennant.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing St. Louis-based Washington win the Division III tourney, just because I know IWU plays them regularly and is capable of handling themselves against their team. It would be yet more evidence that I may see another national title for my school’s team during my lifetime.

And if you’re really going to insist that I pick somebody from the Division I tournament to root for, then I’m going to have to go with American University.

THE EAGLES MANAGED to win the Patriot League title this year, and I did attend the D.C.-based school for a semester back in the autumn of ’86 (my semester of study in Washington coincided with the breaking of the Iran-Contra scandal). But I won’t be the least bit surprised when Tennessee wallops American in the first round.

Even if AU wins a game or two before going home, it wouldn’t mean as much to me as a Titan title in the future.

So congratulations to the Wheaton Thunder for advancing further in post-season play this year than any other Illinois college team. After all, you’ve given this Titans fan some reason to be optimistic for next year.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently commented on the lower-key ( atmosphere surrounding the Division III tourney.

For those people who want to know more about the Illinois-based college that did the best this year ( in post-season play.

American University of Washington, D.C., is making its first-ever appearance ( in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Results from Salem, Va., can be found here ( this weekend.

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