Chicago used to be a hotbed for strong college basketball programs, headed by DePaul. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Blue Demons used to be perennial contenders for the NCAA championship.
While DePaul is still a decent program, it isn’t the national powerhouse it used to be. Together with an area that includes Northwestern, Loyola, Chicago State and Illinois-Chicago, it can be successfully argued the Windy City isn’t lighting up the scoreboard.
This leaves success-starved college basketball fans looking for other teams to support as NCAA tournament time approaches. Let’s take a look at a few teams surrounding Chicago that die-hard basketball fans can follow.
1. Saint Louis Billikens
For many Chicago fans, following a team from Missouri is blasphemy. Think about the legendary rivalry between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in baseball. The Billikens are proving that they are for real, fighting off Virginia Commonwealth and Butler for the Atlantic 10 Conference lead. Saint Louis has lost to teams like Kansas, Washington and Temple, three of only five losses the team has to date. Barring a total collapse, the Billikens will be a sleeper team to watch come tournament time.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers
It looked like Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith was about to lose his job or at least be in serious jeopardy earlier this season. What a difference one game makes. When Minnesota sent fans storming onto the court thanks to its upset of No. 1 Indiana last month. Minnesota may struggle to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament or even get a solid seed in the Big Ten Conference tournament, but it could play spoiler once again before season’s end.
3. Indiana Hoosiers
Speaking of the Hoosiers, every time the team reaches No. 1 someone is always there to knock it down. If it isn’t Minnesota, it is Michigan State. Still, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo have helped Indiana become one of the best teams in the nation in short order. Remember when this team was way below the .500 mark under the guidance of Kelvin Sampson. Tom Crean, formerly an assistant under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and a head coach at Marquette, has made this program respectable overnight.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
It is one of the slowest offenses in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin’s defense has made teams rip up their playbooks in disgust. Every year, despite graduation losses and lower scoring, Wisconsin always manages to bring a strong team into conference play. Losses by Indiana and Michigan have vaulted Wisconsin and Michigan State back into the picture, and it is still possible Wisconsin could play spoiler come Big Ten tournament time.
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Big East as we know it is about to disappear within one or two years. Although Notre Dame entered the month of March tied for fourth place, the reality is Notre Dame is holding its own in a Big East that is increasingly tougher to win. Five of the team’s six losses have come in Big East play, but Notre Dame beat Louisville in five overtimes in what was one of the more memorable Big East games in recent memory. However, losses to Georgetown and Syracuse have dogged the Irish. It is hard to tell which team will show up, but Notre Dame could make things interesting.
These five teams are acceptable ones for Chicago fans to root on as we approach conference tournaments and the NCAA Big Dance. It is the heart of Big Ten country, after all, and the fact three of these five teams are in the conference makes basketball in Chicago more interesting.
Although northeast Illinois doesn’t appear to have any local teams involved in NCAA tournament play this season, a large number of college basketball fans live in and around Chicago. Illinois, like Kentucky, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, has a large number of teams involved in NCAA play. Fans in these states could attend March Madness via the 21st Century Insurance contest, so pick a team to follow! You may get a chance to watch them in person.