By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
There’s a lot of noise in this time of 24-hour news and even the most insignificant sports tidbit gets at least five minutes of airtime before fading into memory.
Most of these news bits really aren’t deserving of such over-analysis and can be easily distilled into two categories: trash or not trash. It’s difficult for a regular person to find the time to distill, but have no fear, I’ve taken it upon myself to do it for you. Here’s the latest edition of “Trash or Not Trash.”
Awwwww yeah, people. It’s March. For some of you, that means a much-needed week long break from school is on the horizon. For others, there is the anticipated debauchery of St. Patrick’s Day. I know most of you are like me, though — you’re excited for (sing it with me now) the most wonderful time of the year: March Madness!
The college basketball regular season has coming to a close, and teams all over these United States are going into their conference tournaments in hopes of realizing their dream of winning a postseason title. Whether that championship hardware is the College Basketball Invitational, the National Invitation Tournament (my personal favorite) or the NCAA Championship, young men and women across the country are about to make one final push toward glory.
While we have to celebrate the achievement of those teams and players who have succeeded these last four months, we can’t forget those underachievers who deserve to get roasted. With that in mind, here’s a special, Chicago-centric college basketball edition of Trash or Not Trash!
NOT TRASH — Bradley Braves
Forget journalistic objectivity. Forget the nebulous boundaries of “Chicago-centric” I stated one sentence earlier. I’m starting this column out biased as hell and do you know why?
BECAUSE IT’S BRADLEY ALL DAY, SON. PEORIA STAND UP! *ahem*
The Bradley men’s basketball team started their conference schedule with five straight losses and, after winning their next two, scored a season-low 37 points on the road against Missouri State. From there, the Braves won five of their next six games, ending up with a 9-9 record in conference play, and swept the “I-74 Rivalry” versus Illinois State for the first time in 12 years. That kind of comeback deserves the top spot on the “Not Trash” pile.
Bradley started the MVC tournament with a nail-biter win against Missouri State, setting up a Saturday afternoon contest with Loyola in St. Louis, ensuring another year in which at least one Illinois state school will reach the MVC championship round. Diminutive junior guard Darrell Brown (5’10”), leads the team in scoring (15 ppg) and three-point shooting (46.2 percent), notched 20 points in the quarterfinal win.
NOT TRASH — Loyola Ramblers
Last season was absolutely magical for the Loyola Ramblers, as Illinois’ only NCAA champion made an astonishing run to the 2018 Final Four before losing to Michigan. This year, with a season-long bulls eye on their back, the Ramblers fared a bit worse, taking some non-conference hits during a ramped-up schedule and finishing with a 12-6 record and only a share of the regular season championship.
Sophomore forward/center Cameron Krutwig (Jacobs H.S.) built off a great freshman year with a great second season, averaging 14.9./6.7/2.4 and leading the conference in ten individual categories, including effective field goal percentage (64.3), rebound percentage (17.8) and win shares (5.0).
Those stats make it even more surprising that Krutwig was beaten for Missouri Valley Player of the Year by his teammate, senior Marques Townes (15.9/5.0/3.5, 48.8 FG%/37.1 3P%). The Ramblers and Sister Jean will be hard pressed to recreate their tournament run of yesteryear, but a dominating performance against Valparaiso in the MVC tournament quarterfinals was a powerful statement to the selection committee.
NOT TRASH (FINALLY!) — DePaul Blue Demons
This year the seeds may have been sown for a return to competitive form in Lincoln Park. Dave Leitao’s Blue Demons just recently made their most resounding statement of the season, waxing visiting Georgetown 101-69 Wednesday night at Wintrust Arena. Seniors Max Strus (Stagg) and Eli Cain led the charge against the Hoyas as they have done for most of the season, as Strus knocked down eight three-pointers on the way to 30 points and Cain finished with 24 points, five assists and three steals.
As I previously discussed for Regal Radio, Leitao and the Demons had to show some gumption this season or a lot of heads were due to roll. They responded their first winning season and most wins in conference play since the 2006-07 season. It wasn’t a fluke, either — the Big East is the fifth-best conference in the NCAA in terms of strength of schedule and simple rating system, according to Sports-Reference.com, and no team won fewer than six games in conference play. (Simple rating system grades a team based on point differential and strength of schedule.)
With Strus, Cain and rugged forward Femi Olujobi graduating at the end of the season, sophomore star Paul Reed will look to the incoming freshman, including Chicago’s own Markese Jacobs (Uplift), to help carry the program forward next year. Until then, the Demons look to close out the season with a win at Creighton Saturday and a strong showing in the Big East tournament.
TRASH — Northwestern Wildcats
For every rise, there must be a fall. After clinching the program’s first NCAA tournament berth and victory in school history two years ago (and putting a scare into No. 1-seed Gonzaga), the Wildcats have fallen to the bottom of the Big Ten after finishing 6-12 in the conference last season. The graduation of stars Scottie Lindsey (Fenwick) and Bryant McIntosh surely meant the ‘Cats were going to face an uphill battle this year, but it didn’t help that the Big Ten was the toughest conference in the nation according to Sports-Reference. All but four of the 14 teams were ranked in the AP Top 25 at least once this year.
There is some hope for Wildcat fans that their fortunes can turn around soon. Pete Nance and Miller Kopp were four-star recruits out of high school and will be back for their sophomore season, and 2019 commit Robbie Beran is a versatile 6-9 forward who was recruited heavily by Virginia Tech and Boston College. Chris Collins has to show a turnaround next year, though, and prove 2017 wasn’t a one-time fairy tale, or he’ll be leaving Evanston and not as a hot coaching commodity.
TRASH-ISH — Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois is still looking to regain their status as a B1G conference powerhouse, and although they registered their second consecutive losing season under Brad Underwood, their stats show a deeper picture.
Illinois had the third-toughest schedule in the conference, with early-season losses to Georgetown, Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Iowa leading to a 4-12 record on January 10. From there, the Illini went 7-6 with two wins over ranked teams: 78-67 over #13 Maryland on January 26 and a 79-74 win over #9 Michigan State on February 5.
Morgan Park grad Ayo Dosunmu made a big splash in his freshman season, leading the Illini in scoring and assists and twice winning the conference’s Freshman of the Week award. Fellow youngsters Trent Frazier (sophomore) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (freshman) provided the remainder of the scoring punch for Illinois, and they look more than capable of improving next year.
However, a downside for Illinois could be seen on the recruiting side. After picking up five-star recruit Dosunmu last year, they currently only have two high-level players arriving in Champaign this fall, according to 247Sports.com. There is still time in the recruiting cycle, but coach Underwood will need another four-star high school player in order to continue Illinois climb back to relevance.
NOT TRASH — UIC Flames
It’s been 15 years since UIC last made the Big Dance, but don’t mistake that drought for a bad stretch of basketball. Fourth-year coach Steve McClain has the Flames competitive in the Horizon League, and last year they made the finals of the College Insider.com Tournament before losing to Northern Colorado.
Junior guard Tarkus Ferguson (Althoff Catholic/Belleville) leads the team in points, rebounds and assists at only 6-4, and he and fellow junior Godwin Boahen both shoot well from deep at 36 and 37% respectively. The Flames were two games worse in conference play this season, but a deeper run in the Horizon League tournament could elevate them to a second berth in the CIT or the College Basketball Invitational.
TRAAAAAAAASH — Chicago State
History tells us that in Chicago State’s first two seasons fielding a varsity basketball team, they finished with a cumulative 38-17 record. Since 1986, the Cougars have won more than 10 games only eight times and are 37-153 since joining the Western Athletic Conference. The Cougars look to avoid a winless conference season this afternoon against Missouri-Kansas City.
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR