In-state college tournament would liven up winter hoops

By Jeremy Werner

After talking to former Daily Illini sports editor David Just about Northwestern’s lack of success in basketball, he brought to my attention that a little more than a year ago, my predecessor Lucas Deal wrote a column calling for a college basketball tournament between universities in the state of Illinois.

After reading Deal’s column, I was sold on the idea. In fact, I think it’s such a good idea that I’ll tell you why it’s a good idea.

If you did not know, there are plenty of good college basketball programs in this state besides the University of Illinois.

Southern Illinois is off to a disappointing 9-10 start after starting the season ranked in the top 25, but the Salukis, like the Illini, are one of 12 teams to have made the NCAA Tournament the past six seasons, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen last season.

Southern’s Missouri Valley Conference rival Bradley University also made the Sweet Sixteen in 2006, while fellow MVC foe Illinois State has also had recent success and even received two votes for the top 25 in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

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DePaul remains a solid team in the powerhouse Big East Conference and has done a nice job of developing NBA prospects over the past decade, such as Quentin Richardson. Wilson Chandler was drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round last year, while Sammy Mejia went in the second round to the Detroit Pistons.

The University of Illinois at Chicago has made the NCAA Tournament three times in the past decade behind head coach Jimmy Collins, a former Illinois assistant under Lou Henson. The Illini barely missed being scorched by the Flames last season in a narrow 71-66 victory at the United Center.

These are the teams that would likely have a shot at winning the tournament, but other programs should get involved, too. Eastern Illinois, Loyola-Chicago, Northern Illinois and Northwestern would all love a shot to upset the more successful programs.

Deal thought it should be an eight-team tournament, but a 10-team tournament in which the four lowest-ranked teams have a play-in game for the rights to face the No. 1 and No. 2 teams – as ranked by the coaches – would work better. A third-place game would precede the championship game on Sunday.

I agree with Deal that the tournament should be single-elimination, held Friday through Sunday. It should be hosted at a neutral arena, and what better place to hold it than in this great state’s capital of Springfield at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, which has an attendance capacity of 7,400.

Deal said the tournament should be held in November, but I’m pushing for December, possibly the week before or after Christmas when the Illini’s schedule is usually just filled with weaker non-conference games before they hit Big Ten play.

Some may say the Illini only have something to lose in this tournament, but what do they have to gain by playing Loyola (Md.), Western Carolina, Tennessee State and Miami (Ohio)?

They lost to the latter two of those supposedly “weaker” opponents this season.

With a tournament against in-state teams, Illinois has the chance to notch some big non-conference victories against the always-tough MVC teams, UIC and DePaul that could prove to be important in the minds of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

The tournament would also provide the same opportunities for the rest of the teams and would allow exposure for teams that generally do not receive as much publicity.

College basketball fans would swarm to this tournament. Crowds would likely be raucous as each program would be looking to gain bragging rights over the rest of the state or at least one other program for the year. Holding it around Christmas time would allow the tournament to be an event families look forward to as students and parents have time off for the holidays.

The major road block to such a fan-friendly and program-elevating tournament is the all-mighty dollar. Illinois would not likely pass up hosting three games at Assembly Hall as men’s basketball games and football games are the only true money-makers for the athletic department.

I’m not a business or finance major, so I will not even try to figure out a way to financially justify such a tournament, but it is a shame that these teams do not play each other more often because there is an opportunity for intense rivalries.

For instance, Illinois and SIU are two of the top-10 winningest basketball programs in Division I since 2001 but have not played each other since that season – and that was in Las Vegas!

That is simply a travesty to Illinoisans.

So this idea thought up by a few Daily Illini employees a year ago may never materialize, but it sure would be fun to see.

Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].