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Chicago State’s basketball program is no longer out of WAC

Chicago State guard QuintPippen (33) drives against Cincinnati guard Troy Caupaduring second half an NCAA college basketball game Monday Dec.

Chicago State guard Quinton Pippen (33) drives against Cincinnati guard Troy Caupain during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

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Updated: March 8, 2014 6:16AM

Chicago State University’s sprawling South Side campus is an appropriate setting for a basketball team with something to prove.

For years the Cougars fought the well-founded perception that they were in over their heads as a Division I competitor. They had enjoyed one winning season and gone through eight coaches since the 1985-86 season. Academic deficiencies and a shortage of participants in several sports were among the issues that prompted an NCAA threat to revoke CSU’s Division I status. And when the Mid-Continent Conference evolved into the Summit League in 2007, the Cougars were left off the membership list.

A shaky athletics program fit right in on a campus with a notorious history of problems ranging from an embarrassing graduation rate to baffling financial procedures to warlike friction between faculty and administration.

The opening of the Emil and Patricia Jones Athletic Center seemed like a cosmetic change, but it gave the Cougars a legitimate D-1 playing facility. Now the standards-raising work of second-year athletic director Dan Schumacher and fourth-year coach Tracy Dildy is giving CSU a team that merits that designation as well.

“It starts with academics,” Schumacher said. “All eight of our seniors are on track to graduate, and the team GPA was above 3.0 for the fall semester. That’s a first for this place.”

So is the presence of an academic advisor on trips. Karen Schiferl, CSU’s associate athletic director for academic services, frequently travels with the team to make sure the players use down time as study time.

“She’s pretty relentless,” said senior forward Quinton Pippen, nephew of Scottie, who will graduate in the spring with a degree in psychology and a career goal of assisting troubled youngsters.

With a 9-12 record going into Saturday’s home game against Kansas City, the Cougars are hardly a threat to supplant Syracuse atop the national rankings. But seven of those losses occurred in “body-bag games” against Indiana, Illinois, Creighton, Cincinnati; prestige teams with drawing power and a willingness to write nice checks in exchange for a comfortable victory.

Those checks are a necessity in that they help fund CSU’s entire athletic program. Meanwhile, an overtime loss at DePaul and a victory against Southern Illinois at home, along with a 4-3 league record in their first year of Western Athletic Conference play, offer hope that the Cougars have distanced themselves from their sorry past.

“My mandate is to make sure the kids get their education and have an enjoyable basketball experience here,” Dildy said. “If we take care of things on that end, the wins will come.”

Dildy is 47. He grew up less than a mile from the CSU campus, but traveled a circuitous route to get home. He played for Landon Cox at King High School and for Bob Hallberg at UIC, and followed his point guard’s feel for the game into coaching after graduating from UIC in 1991. During seven stops at six schools over 20 years, he wore the “R” label — recruiter — that is frequently affixed to African-American assistants, often to their detriment as coaches.

“I was fortunate to work for some guys who gave me real responsibility,” Dildy said. “I thought I’d be ready when my time came.”

He also wore the R label quite well, signing future pros Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons at DePaul, Bonzi Wells at Ball State and Marquise Daniels at Auburn.

“As a Christian, I believe everything happens for a reason,” Dildy said. “This is like a dream job because I love Chicago and I love Chicago student-athletes.”

In particular those with something to prove. Clarke Rosenberg, the Cougars’ No. 2 scorer, had some junior-college offers coming out of Evanston, but he is fulfilling his goal of playing Division I ball “for a coach who holds you to a higher standard.”

Matt Ross, a 6-9 forward from Dixon, Ill., drew some curious looks for his small-town ways on a decidedly urban campus, but his hard-nosed energy makes him an ideal fit on a team that struggles to get noticed; CSU draws only 925 fans per home game.

“Coach Dildy keeps it real. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” Ross said. “He told me we’d have a chance to do something special here, but we’d have to work for it.”

Geography no longer matters in conference affiliations, so Schumacher was seeking enhanced exposure and competitive opportunities when he aligned CSU with the WAC last year. Next month, the Cougars will compete in the conference tournament in Las Vegas, with the winner securing an automatic NCAA bid. Considering where CSU has been since the question made history, it’s worth asking if we still believe in miracles.

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