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McGRATH: There’s hope yet for Chicago college hoops

Northwestern coach Chris Collins feels love crowd after Wildcats’ 49-43 wover Illinois last Sunday.  | Matt Marton/AP

Northwestern coach Chris Collins feels the love of the crowd after the Wildcats’ 49-43 win over Illinois last Sunday.  | Matt Marton/AP

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Updated: February 20, 2014 6:36AM



Maybe it’s the memory of Red Rush’s cheerfully dramatic radio calls of Loyola Ramblers games, or Ray Meyer jousting with Al McGuire on the sideline while George Thompson and Sevira Brown slugged it out on the floor at sweaty Alumni Hall. Or maybe it’s the packed houses the old Stadium drew for weekend doubleheaders that brought the nation’s best teams to town.

The Chicago I grew up in was a college basketball town.

It still is on occasion. The Big Ten tournament is a good draw when it’s staged here, and NCAA regional cards always fill the United Center, with or without a local presence. The Duke-Kansas/Michigan State-Kentucky doubleheader played here in November was a really tough ticket.

And before there was Michael Jordan, there was Mark Aguirre. His DePaul Blue Demons were the winter sports story in Chicago for much of the ’80s, until MJ showed up and made the Bulls matter so much.

Their ascendance and MJ’s transcendence completed the pros’ domination of the market. These days, a college team has to be something special to attract more eyeballs than a Bears notebook draws in mid-April, and ‘‘special’’ has gone missing from the local campus scene.

Loyola has been to the NCAA tournament four times since winning the thing (on a tape-delayed TV broadcast) in 1963. Northwestern never has been to the tournament, and that’s taking futility beyond the Cubs’ level.

DePaul has been through four coaches since dismissing Joey Meyer in 1998, and none of them developed anything of lasting value.

New coach for Northwestern. New conferences for DePaul, Notre Dame and Loyola. Intriguing story lines all around us this season, and the teams responsible for them have pretty much flat-lined. March is looking like a pretty quiet month.

With his bloodlines, his local ties, his Duke pedigree and his general decency, Chris Collins received a hero’s welcome at Northwestern, only to confront a vexing problem: a shortage of Big Ten players. Bill Carmody’s commando-style operation was capable of stealing a game here or there, but a Big Ten season is a war of attrition, and Collins’ more conventional approach requires more live bodies. Help is said to be on the way with a strong recruiting class.

Collins has taken his rough ride graciously, coaching players who aren’t really his into a competitive group while professing belief in the roster he inherited. One of the holdovers, Tre Demps, responded with the game of his life in Saturday’s stunner at Indiana.

Illinois, meanwhile, has hit a rough patch. The thumping it took at Wisconsin made some sense, but losses at Northwestern and to Purdue at home not so much — not for a team with NCAA tournament aspirations. The stone-cold Illini have to rediscover the art of shooting.

Loyola to the Missouri Valley has made sense for years; the Valley has long sought a Chicago presence, and Valley teams formed the meat of Loyola’s schedule in its ’60s glory days. The Ramblers will generate more buzz for Bradley, Southern Illinois and Illinois State than they ever did for Wright State, Cleveland State and Milwaukee.

They also have to attract more talent if they’re going to be competitive in a stronger league. Milton Doyle, with the Public League elan he brings to the floor, is a start.

DePaul was a Big East bottom-feeder in the conference’s previous incarnation, and three straight losses within the new alignment suggested more of the same. The early schedule was a killer: at Georgetown, at Marquette, Creighton at home. The back-to-back victories that followed the Creighton loss were the Demons’ first in conference play in six years, but surrendering 55 points to Villanova in the second half Saturday revealed an ongoing problem: indifferent defense.

Speaking of Creighton, is Omaha too far removed from Chicago’s sphere of influence? Can we claim the Blue Jays as a local team? They have a great college player in two-time All-American Doug McDermott, and they’ve surrounded him with enough shooters to discourage double-teams and gimmick defenses. Their transition from the Valley to the new Big East has been seamless.

‘‘Bigger cities, bigger buildings, bigger bodies — longer and more athletic,’’ coach Greg McDermott said. ‘‘But at the end of the day, it’s still basketball.’’

Chicago had a first-place hoops team for a minute: Chicago State’s Cougars. They were 3-0 in the Western Athletic Conference after Thursday’s win over New Mexico State, only to absorb a 23-point thumping from Texas-Pan American two days later. CSU is 8-10 overall against a murderous schedule.

Chicago in the WAC? Nutty. Like Rutgers in the Big Ten.



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