Perhaps 2011 just isn't the year for NCAA Division 1 basketball institutions in the Prairie State.
Boasting 13 D-1 schools, the state of Illinois has failed to produce a single representative that is in the nation's top 25 or is winning their respective conference.
The most glaring of the incidents at hand takes place in Champaign-Urbana, where an Illinois squad that was saddled with lofty expectations early is now hearing more talk about bubbles than a group of 7-year-olds planning a birthday party.
But outside of the state's central public research university, the problems get worse.
For example, of the 13 programs in Illinois, not a single one has a winning percentage over .500 in conference play. In fact, that underachieving bunch from Assembly Hall is the closest to that insignificant achievement with a conference record of 7-8.
Say what you want about Illinois and Northwestern being disappointments in 2011, but believe it or not, they may be in the best position with the last month of the season drawing near.
It is often said that the state of Illinois represents a microcosm for the nation as a whole. We have the third-largest city in the country and miles upon miles of rolling plains all encompassed within the parameters of a single state.
Similarly, Illinois can conceivably illustrate a microcosm of the country's college basketball landscape as well.
We have two Big Ten schools and a Big East school (major power conferences), three Missouri Valley schools (high mid-major), two Horizon League teams (mid-major), two Ohio Valley Conference programs (low mid-major), a Summit League school (low) and one member of the Great West Conference (who the _____ is in that besides Chicago State?).
The more you look at the numbers, the more pathetic it seems for one of the country's premiere high school basketball states to show such low levels of achievement in the college ranks.
In the Missouri Valley, the three schools that represent Illinois have all had their moment in the sun within the last five years.
ISU had a few great years behind Osiris Eldridge and co. and were a 30-point loss to Drake in the MVC Conference title game away from making the Big Dance. Bradley had a Sweet 16 run powered by their fiery front man Jim Les and center Patrick O'Bryant, who used the NCAA tournament as a springboard into becoming a lottery pick, only for NBA scouts to later realize why he was at Bradley in the first place (now currently in NBDL).
Southern Illinois, or "SO ILL", as they were often abbreviated on CBS, were once an NCAA tourney staple, priding itself on strong defense and great guard play. Now the three aforementioned teams are the last teams listed in the MVC conference standings.
Talk about peaks and valleys (pun absolutely intended).
We often talk about how bad DePaul is, and trust me, it's warranted, but how about the other institutions of higher education downtown? Loyola ranks eighth out of 10 in the Horizon League, and embarrassingly enough, that UIC Flames team that beat U of I in the United Center earlier this year is 2-15 in conference. Good enough for, you guessed it, last place.
If you want to try to head west to find some better basketball, good luck.
The Leathernecks of Western Illinois are ninth out of a possible 10 teams in the highly-touted Summit League, ahead of only Centenary in fighting off the conference cellar. Also, strangely enough, Chicago State plays in a league that refers to itself as the Great West Conference. Nobody has heard of the league or any of its members, but after further research, I found that the Cougars are fifth...of seven.
I know what you're thinking now. At least we have the east, right? Well, The Pulse Man's beloved EIU Panthers are ninth out of 11 in the Ohio Valley.
And to top it off, one of the two teams below Eastern in the standings is the newly-instated SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, who sit at a hardly respectable 7-20. Last, and quite possibly least, NIU sits at 3-9 and 11th in the MAC, which is surprisingly down this year.
We're just going down, down in an earlier round. That's what happens when you have 13 teams, two in last place, six with less than four conference wins and zero over .500 in league play, and I'm quoting Fall Out Boy. Despicable.
I admit, this is hard to do. It's like something that was once so good has gone to hell incredibly fast. Kind of like how we felt about Bob Dylan at the Grammy's—make sure he's still breathing, and get the man another smoky treat; don't subject him to public performance during his worst hour.
It really is a damn shame. I guess the times they-are-a changin'.
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