“Just an old sweet song keeps Chicago on my mind”
CHICAGO — Sorry, Ray Charles, but Georgia doesn’t fit today.
The state university, engaging in multi-pronged efforts to win Frank Sinatra’s “Toddlin’ Town,” is putting the city front and center again Thursday.
The Illini’s 11 a.m. United Center showdown with Minnesota — opening game in the sold-out Big Ten tournament — is the centerpiece in a splash of events including (1) critical Big Ten meetings related to future alignment and expansion, (2) the UI’s ongoing quest for donors — the Assembly Hall needs money — as the new Chicago Advisory Board comes aboard and (3) the never-ending quest to impress and entice blue-chip football and basketball prospects.
You want Chicago? OK, here’s how: WIN! In these parts, there’s no other way to earn respect.
Football is a featured aspect of this discussion, but let’s delay that until September when Tim Beckman’s team hosts Washington at Soldier Field. As for basketball, the Illini have done quite well in these preciincts, even if some recent losses to Northwestern and UIC stick in the craw of this rabid fan base.
Consider: Since the 1997-98 season, when Chicago hosted the first Big Ten tournament, Illinois is 15-5 in tourney games at the United Center, 15-5 in pre-conference games up north, 11-3 vs. Northwestern in Evanston, and 4-0 in NCAA clashes along the lakefront. That 45-13 audit includes wins over Auburn Dec. 29 and Northwestern on Feb. 17.
First-year coach John Groce recognizes the significance of pleasing the always-large Chicago turnout as he brings a squad with eight members who prepped in the city and suburbs. Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are listed as starters, while Myke Henry and Joe Bertrand (his shoulder appearing healed) are in the eight-man rotation.
“I love playing in Chicago,” Groce said Tuesday. “I love going up there. I love the Bears.”
Then, noting that his wallet becomes lighter, he quipped: “The only drawback is that my wife likes to shop up there.”
Highs and lows
Most memorable Chicagoland basketball successes:
— The Rosemont rally to defeat Arizona, 90-89 in overtime, put Illinois in the 2005 Final Four and stands as the UI’s most significant basketball comeback.
— In 1999, an Illini team that finished 3-13 in the Big Ten erupted with stunning upsets of Top 25 teams Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio State to finish second in the tourney.
— In 2003, Bill Self’s club edged Indiana 73-72 en route to the tourney title.
— It was in 2000 that No. 5 Illinois whacked No. 7 Arizona, 81-73, at the United Center, only to lose later to Lute Olson’s gang in a foul-marred NCAA clash, 87-81, in San Antonio.
— And who can forget the 84-70 defeat of Kansas in 1999 or the Meacham-McCamey charge that nipped Northwestern 60-59 in 2009?
And the past 15 years gave the Chicago crowd reason to fume over these disappointments:
— Some critics called the Dec. 18, 2010 loss to UIC (57-54) the Illini’s worst in modern times, the Flames finishing 7-24 that season and 2-16 in the Horizon League.
— Bruce Weber’s first UI team fell at Northwestern, 80-70, but charged back to capture the undisputed 2004 Big Ten championship.
— The 72-69 loss to Duke in 1999 was hard enough to swallow without Billy Packer trashing Frank Williams, the Big Ten’s MVP that season.
— Overtime defeats are always tough to take, the Illini falling in extra sessions to Arizona, 78-72, Dec. 8, 2007 and to Gonzaga, 85-83, Jan. 2, 2010. It was the only loss to Gonzaga in four recent meetings.
With college basketball in Illinois continually reaching new lows, the Illini remain the only likely NCAA participant despite losing three of their last four games.
This is a state noted for its prep talent, and yet it is floundering while, all around in close proximinty, there of dozens of qualifiers that don’t need conference tournament wins to advance — Saint Louis, Creighton and Wichita State, to name a few. Colorado and Colorado State are in Joe Lunardi’s bracket. Lon Kruger appears in at Oklahoma along with two other former UI coaches, Bill Self (Kansas) and Weber (Kansas State).
Coasting in are Iowa State and Butler and Notre Dame and Memphis and Marquette and Oklahoma State and Cincinnati, and the list goes on and on.
Of 13 major in-state schools, only one finished .500 or better in its conference. Jim Molinari’s Western quintet was 13-3 in the Summit but the Leathernecks lost to North Dakota State, 55-43, in Monday’s tourney semi, and will have to settle for the NIT. The conference record of the other 12 in-state teams is 64-132. Nine of them had sub-.500 records for the season, the worst being NIU at 5-25.
It is astounding that this populous state, a long-standing basketball hotbed with so many touted prep stars, is so poorly represented in college basketball. Bradley, Illinois State and Southern disappointed in the Missouri Valley. Eastern continues to struggle. DePaul, 2-16 in the Big East, never got started, and Northwestern trailed off to 13-18 overall. Even as the Illini advance, they found themselves at 8-10 and in a tie for seventh, eighth and ninth in the Big Ten with Minnesota and Purdue.
Yes, the Illini are safely in, even if they lose to the Gophers Thursday. Lunardi has them as an eighth seed, which means there are more than a dozen at-large teams behind them in his mock seedings.
One of these is Minnesota. The Gophers are banking on backboard demon Trevor Mbakwe to spark one last surge — and perhaps save Tubby Smith’s job — after the Gophers dropped 10 of their final 15 games, the last two to Nebraska and Purdue.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org