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Forget RPI, state of college basketball in Illinois is RIP

Northwestern's John Shurn(left)  Drew Crawford react after 75-73 loss Ohio State Wednesday. The Wildcats are having one their best

Northwestern's John Shurna (left) and Drew Crawford react after a 75-73 loss to Ohio State on Wednesday. The Wildcats are having one of their best seasons, but are still on the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament. | AP

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Updated: March 1, 2012 1:03PM

Is college basketball dead or just dying in the Land of Lincoln?

Barring any miraculous conference tournament performances, the great state of Illinois — with its 13 Division-I basketball teams, its rich history of college basketball stars, its still-fertile pool of high school talent and its deep-rooted pride in being one of America’s most passionate basketball states — could have a grand total of zero teams in the NCAA tournament this season.

Illinois (17-12) and Northwestern (17-12) could sneak in to the field of 68. But neither team is motoring to the finish line. Illinois was 1-6 in February — beating only seventh-place Iowa at home. Northwestern was 5-4 last month, beating the other five second-division teams in the Big 10 — Nebraska (11th), Illinois (ninth), Iowa (seventh), Minnesota (10th) and Penn State (12th). Typical of the plight of Illinois hoops, the Wildcats’ most compelling argument for inclusion is based primarily on close losses to ranked teams in the final 10 games — at Indiana (71-66), vs. Michigan (67-55 in OT) and vs. Ohio State (75-73).

Illinois’ issues have been evident all season. And Northwestern is Northwestern — after one of their best seasons ever the Wildcats still are a fringe tournament team at best. But why is the demise of college basketball a statewide epidemic in Illinois? How is it that Marquette and Notre Dame are tournament regulars without McDonald’s All-Americans, but Illinois chronically underachieves and De Paul hasn’t made it in years?

How is that Butler, Valparaiso and Wisconsin-Milwaukee are perennial contenders, but UIC, Loyola and Northern Illinois seem to be running in place. Did you know that none of Illinois’ 13 Division I teams has a winning record in their conference. And more than half are in last place or second-to-last ahead of another Illinois team? It’s true — DePaul (2-15) in the Big East; Loyola (1-17) and UIC (3-15) in the Horizon League; Northern Illinois (2-12) in the MAC West; Bradley (2-16) and Southern Illinois (5-13) in the Missouri Valley; and Chicago State (2-7) in the Great West.

It’s duly noted that most of those last-place teams are in the first or second year of a new coaching staff. But why does everybody have to take a step backward before taking two steps forward? In case it’s not obvious, college basketball isn’t what it used to be. Michigan State is a contender for a No. 1 seed — or was before losing at Indiana on Tuesday night. But if you had a tournament including all 17 of Tom Izzo’s teams in East Lansing, would this one even get out of the first round? I doubt it. College basketball’s arrow is pointing down, with the state of Illinois leading the way.

Northwestern (43rd) and Illinois (67th) are the only teams in the top 100 in RPI. After Illinois State (125th) and Western Illinois (190th), everybody else is 200th or lower — including DePaul (200th), UIC (295th), Loyola (305th) and NIU (338th).

Particularly disconcerting is that nobody seems to be getting any better. Illinois’ D-I schools were 31-76 in February, with most of the victories against other conference bottom feeders. The biggest win, relatively speaking, was SIU-Edwardsville (10-17, 6-10) upsetting Morehead State (17-14, 10-6) in the Ohio Valley. With a 4-3 February, SIU-E was one of only two Illinois schools to actually improve its RPI last month. The Cougars jumped from 313th to 299th. (UIC was the other, improving from 302nd to 296th.)

It is a long-standing tenet of critical journalism that when you present a problem, you should also present a solution. But I am at a loss here. Why is college basketball in Illinois a wasteland?

It’s not just recruiting — other teams do more with less talent than Bruce Weber has at Illinois. Is Chicago’s vaunted talent pool overexposed and overrated? To a degree, no doubt. But you’d think you even Chicago-area leftovers could keep UIC and Loyola out of the basement of the Horizon League or Northern out of last place in the MAC. I guess not.

Ultimately, it comes down to coaching, but that’s hard to pinpoint as well. Illinois’ Weber, Northwestern’s Bill Carmody, DePaul’s Oliver Purnell and Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery have credentials but also limitations. Bradley’s Geno Ford and Loyola’s Porter Moser had success at previous stops but still arrived without an NCAA tournament appearance on their resume.

NIU’s Mark Montgomery coached under Izzo at Michigan State for 10 years and UIC’s Howard Moore coached under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin for five — there’s always hope there.

Then again, Illinois State’s Tim Jankovich played for Kansas State legend Jack Hartman and coached under Bill Self for five years, but is treading water in his fifth year in Normal after making the NIT in each of his first three seasons. Western Illinois’ Jim Molinari took Northern Illinois and Bradley to the NCAA tournament but is 44-73 in his fourth year in Macomb.

Eastern Illinois’ Mike Miller led the Panthers to their first winning season in 10 years in 2009-10 (19-12), but was fired Monday with a 75-130 record in seven seasons. SIU-Edwardsville’s Lennox Forrester is 50-92 in his fifth season of a tough transition from Division II.

That leaves Chicago State’s Tracy Dildy, who epitomizes the hope, heartbreak and ultimate futility of building a consistent winner in these parts. Dildy has solid Chicago credentials — he played for King High School in Landon Cox’s heyday and was an assistant coach at De Paul and UIC. At DePaul he recruited Chicago superstars Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons, Lance Williams, Steven Hunter, Paul McPherson, Andre Brown, Imari Sawyer and Eddy Curry. But all the Blue Demons had to show for that haul was one NCAA tournament game — an overtime loss to Kansas as a No. 9 seed in 2000.

The lesson there is that the state of Illinois in general and Chicago in particular can be the problem as much as the solution. Until somebody proves otherwise, the only real answer to Illinois’ college basketball famine — the only way to avoid being disappointed every March — is to lower expectations.

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