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College hoops in Illinois: A state of ruin

Illinois head coach John Groce reacts play first half an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan quarterfinals Big Ten Conference

Illinois head coach John Groce reacts to a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament Friday, March 14, 2014, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) ORG XMIT: NAF106

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Updated: March 17, 2014 3:10PM

Go ahead. Hug your brackets. Make yourself believe that an NCAA pool is enough emotional sustenance for you.

Who needs a team from Illinois in the tournament? Not you! You’ll adopt a gritty 12th seed that hails from a small city 2,000 miles away, and you’ll have yourself a three-week fling.

Sorry, but it sounds forced and empty.

You know how the holidays can be a depressing time for some people? The loneliness? The isolation? The painful reminders of better days long gone?

That’s how the NCAA tournament risks being for those of us who live in desolate, hoops-forsaken Illinois.

We’re not very good at this college basketball thing. And it has gotten very, very old.

Northwestern, DePaul and Illinois won’t be taking part in the tournament. Nor will Northern Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois or either of the Southern Illinoises — Carbondale or Edwardsville. If there’s a direction I’m forgetting, don’t worry; it didn’t make the Big Dance, either.

Of the 13 Division I programs in the state, only Illinois (19-14) and Illinois State (16-15) had winning records. No team was above .500 in conference play. The combined overall record was 163-250, which you math majors know to be a .395 winning percentage. The combined conference winning percentage was .360. It shouldn’t be this bad, not with the amount of high school talent in the state.

Friends, Delaware has a team in the tournament. So does North Dakota. Perhaps that’s because Delaware has a starter from Illinois and North Dakota State has two.

To recap: Illinois has no teams in the NCAA tournament. Last year, it had one — the Illini. The last time the state had two teams in the tournament was 2007, when Illinois and Southern Illinois (Carbondale) made it.

Northwestern has never made the tournament. There is no excuse for a 75-year absence. Not too-stringent academics, not subpar facilities, not the dog ate my homework.

There is no excuse for DePaul having sunk this low, close as it is to one of the deepest talent pools in the country.

And there is no excuse for Illinois, with all its tradition and resources, to have fallen to this level of mediocrity.

This probably won’t surprise anybody in Chicago, a town used to being led on, but the currency being thrown around these days is hope. Next year will be better, the major-conference programs keep telling us. All that other stuff — the unpleasant past, for example — doesn’t matter much.

This recruiting class will change everything, we’re told.

The current roster is young, raw and improving.

The coach just needs to get his own players into the program.

I won’t waste your time or mine scrounging up similar quotes from the past, but we’ve heard a lot of this before. It goes with the territory in sports. What else are coaches and administrators supposed to say? That the incoming recruiting class is decent but not great? That it’ll be five years before they can even think about competing?

DePaul has made the tournament just three times since 1992 and not since 2004. Will a new stadium near McCormick Place make a difference? Only if it comes with Simeon’s roster. The sense of urgency about anything seems to be missing in Lincoln Park.

Since losing to North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA title game, Illinois has been to the tournament just five times in nine seasons and hasn’t gotten out of the second round. That’s unacceptable for a university that prides itself on its basketball history. Coach John Groce has fire in his eyes, which is fine if you’re looking for a place to get warm. But can it lure somebody other than the typical unremarkable Illini recruit? Prove it, coach.

Northwestern got itself a high-profile leader when it hired Chris Collins last year, and he did the best with what he had. Considering the hype surrounding his incoming recruiting class, I’m expecting a Sweet 16 appearance any moment now. On second thought, I’ll take an above-.500 Big Ten record. The last time that happened was 1968.

The schools in this state are caught in a debilitating cycle. The most-talented players from the Chicago area want to play for programs that win regularly. The programs can’t win regularly without talented players. That goes a long way toward explaining the state of ruin we’re seeing, hoops-wise.

The NCAA tournament is supposed to be three weeks of fun. In Illinois, it’s three weeks of none.


Twitter: @MorrisseyCST

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