Come NCAA tournament time, the field of 68 teams gets broken down every way imaginable.
How many teams from each conference are in the field, the most interesting player names, how many teams are in the tournament from each state – the categorizing goes on and on.
Around here, the latter got a lot of attention last week considering college basketball in Illinois was shut out of the Big Dance for the second consecutive season and fifth time in eight years. To give you some perspective, neighboring hoops state Indiana had five teams in this year’s field.
That got us to thinking, what about the rest of the Midwest?
Indiana was this year’s poster child, but the Midwest has always been strong in college basketball. That’s obviously been reflected in the Big Ten’s recent rise to prominence, but other conferences in the region have carried their weight as well.
Led by the Big Ten’s seven teams, the Midwest had 20 of the 68 teams in the 2015 field – tied with the South for most. And when you look at the map below, one thing is clear: the state of Illinois is not carrying their weight.
If it wasn’t for Missouri, this would be flat out embarrassing. Every other state bordering Illinois was represented in this year’s tournament, and that doesn’t even include nearby Ohio’s four teams.
To the west, Wichita State and KU just had an epic bragging rights battle on Sunday. Butler and Notre Dame did the same thing Saturday night for Indiana. Wisconsin and Michigan only have one team each, but they both could be Final Four bound.
It’s no accident the Midwest is traditionally strong in hoops. The region’s de facto capital, Chicago, is arguably the country’s most fertile talent ground. Indiana’s numerous metropolises – Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Gary – aren’t very far behind. Neither is Detroit.
And thus, all these schools engage in a lot of the same recruiting battles year after year. Naturally, they develop a similar identity.
“There’s been a lot of good players that have come out of Chicago. I think the Midwest in general has a tougher kid.”
—Michigan State coach Tom Izzo
I couldn’t imagine a better person to deliver that quote than Izzo, whose Spartan teams have continued to redefine toughness every March.
Yet, the state that is home to Chicago has become virtually non-existent by this time of year. The majority of that blame should be put on the Illinois Fighting Illini, who have long carried the state’s torch come tournament time.
With 59 players from Illinois playing in the tournament – including player of the year candidates Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky – it’s obvious that U of I missed out on plenty of Chicago’s rich talent.
But the map above makes it clear how bad things are across the entire state. And not all 59 of those players were even on the Illini’s recruiting radar. In fact, most are players that other programs in the state used to get and should be getting.
There are 13 Division I basketball programs in Illinois, and if you look at each schools’ last NCAA tournament appearance – it’s pretty ugly.
University of Illinois: 2013
Southern Illinois University: 2007
Bradley University: 2006
University of Illinois (Chicago): 2004
DePaul University: 2004
Eastern Illinois University: 2001
Illinois State University: 1998
Northern Illinois University: 1996
Loyola University: 1985
Northwestern University: Never
Western Illinois University: Never
Chicago State University: Never
Southern Illinois University (Edwardsville): Never
Now it’s easy to see why Illinois has been shut out of March Madness five times in eight years. While the Illini are still finding their way back to consistent relevance under John Groce, the rest of the state’s top programs have gone in hibernation since the mid-2000’s.
SIU and Bradley don’t look to be going anywhere fast, and the jury is out on DePaul until they hire the right coach. If not, they’ll continue to struggle in the rugged Big East.
Ironically, Northwestern is on the upswing with new coach Chris Collins – and they should finally snap their infamous NCAA Tournament drought soon. Illinois State was just one win away this season, and they’ve flirted with the tournament plenty in recent years. UIC just made a solid hire in former IU assistant Steve McClain, who will try and sell Chicago’s bevy of talent on a local option.
As it stands, those are the three programs (along with the Illini) who have to help turn it around for college basketball in Illinois.
Because right now, it couldn’t get much worse.
(Map courtesy of STW)