CHICAGO- It’s no secret that college basketball in Chicago has been depressing to watch for the most part part. But there is one team that has been worth watching this season that nobody even talks about. Despite their less than stellar record, the Chicago State Cougars (13-18, 8-8 Western Athletic) have Chicago’s best shot of playing in college basketball’s postseason this year.
On Saturday, CSU held Senior Day in it’s final regular season game at the Jones Convocation Center. Guards Corey Gray, Jamere Dismukes, Nate Duhon, and Quinton Pippen, along with forwards Matt Ross, Eddie Denard, Aaron Williams and Markus Starks were recognized for their contributions during an elaborate pre-game ceremony.
Once the game started, the Cougars let their defense do the talking while the offense finished the job. In a 67-53 victory over Seattle (13-16, 5-11 WAC), the Cougars forced 24 turnovers ( they scored 28 points off of those turnovers), blocked six shots, and out-rebounded the Redhawks 39-35.
They held SU to just 31-percent shooting from the floor (they only converted 14-of-48 field goals), 40-percent from the three-point line (9-of-22), and held them without a field goal for a three minute stretch in the first half. The offense also deserves some credit as they seemed to score at will, especially in the second half.
They outscored Seattle U in the paint 26-10, got 14 second chance points, 12 fast break points, 16 points from the bench, and converted 20-of-29 free throws. Matt Ross led the Cougars with a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds), while guards Nate Duhon (18) and Quinton Pippen (14) also finished in double figures.
Seattle guard Jarell Flora was the only member of his team to finish in double figures with 22 points. With this victory, the Cougars clinch the number three seed in next week’s WAC Tournament in Las Vegas. This is the highest conference tournament seed that the Cougars have achieved in the 21st century. This team may be the only Chicago team to get a postseason berth in 2014, and that is something that has weighed on the minds of this program.
“This win tonight gives us a lot of confidence as a team” Matt Ross said, “It’s big for this university” he added.
It’s big indeed, especially for a program that has always been at the bottom of the barrel since joining the NCAA in the 1980’s. They’ve also had to overcome many academic obstacles as well. Head coach Tracy Dildy had quite the task ahead of him when he took this job in 2010. It didn’t take long to fix the academic issues, and within three years he guided the Cougars to their first NCAA conference title (2013 Great West), and their first postseason tournament (2013 CIT).
It has been a long winding road, but it’s a road that may finally lead this team to the promised land. “When I first arrived (as a junior college transfer in 2012), athletics was down, academics were down” Ross said. “We got together and said ‘Let’s fix this!’, progressing through to the CIT last year was just a stepping stone” he added.
Coach Dildy being ever so patient with rebuilding the Chicago State program has always been a proponent of strong academics. Even if the Cougars make to their second straight postseason tournament for the first time in school history, he’ll be the first to tell you that graduating eight of his players is the bigger accomplishment.
“I can’t even describe how I feel since we fixed the graduation rate” Dildy said. He added, “Knowing that all of those guys will be marching (down the aisle) in May and getting their degree, that’s what it’s all about.”
With coach Dildy also being extremely humble, he gives the credit of his players classroom success to a much higher power.
“God has placed me here and I don’t plan on going nowhere” Dildy said, he added “This is all about God who’s placed me in the position I’m in. I pray a lot, I’m a true believer and all of this is by His design. Tracy Dildy ain’t that great, trust me. (But) to glorify His name, I’m thankful for that.”
At the same time, he also understands what’s at stake from at athletic standpoint. “I would love for us to be the team that represents this city in the NCAA Tournament. It would be a dream come true for me and for this university.”
Even with this team’s ascension, Dildy also points out that Chicago State isn’t the only men’s basketball program that’s improving, from his point of view anyway. “The (other) programs ( in this city), they’re all getting better. There will be a day when there will be two or three teams from Illinois playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
That day remains to be seen… But for now, we can live in the moment with the CSU Cougars. Follow me on Twitter @GabeSalgado82