By Have Jumpshot Will Travel (a.k.a. Trashtalk Superstar)
For years, Chicago area college basketball fans have hoped for, clamored for and campaigned for an annual game between DePaul and Illinois. And for years DePaul and Illinois have refused to play each other.
DePaul was an elite national power in college basketball during the 1970's and 1980's. Illinois became a nationally prominent program in the early to mid 80's, and has (save for a stretch in the early to mid 90's) been one ever since. An annual match up between the only two major programs (Northwestern doesn't count) in the nation's fifth most populated state would, on the surface, seem like a natural.
So why do they refuse to play each other?
In the 1970's DePaul emerged as a powerhouse on the national scene after years of irrelevance. Legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer's Blue Demons had endured decades of mediocrity (and occasional futility) after center George Mikan graduated in the 1940's. Mikan went on to become the NBA's first superstar big man, but it took DePaul thirty years to return to relevance after Mikan departed.
DePaul's fortunes changed when Meyer began to attract top flight players from Chicago's storied Public League. Players like Terry Cummings, Skip Dillard, Teddy Grubbs and the legendary Mark Aguirre migrated north to DePaul's Lincoln Park (Chicago) campus from the South and West sides of the city. Meyer took DePaul to the Final Four in 1979 and had the Blue Demons ranked #1 for much of the 1980 regular season.
But while Chicago players turned DePaul into a national power, Illinois spent the 70's mired in mediocrity and unable to attract Chicago players to its downstate Champaign-Urbana campus.
However, Illinois turned the tables in the 1980's under the stewardship of coach Lou Henson (thanks, in large part, to assistant coach Jimmy Collins' deep Chicago connections/ties [shadiness?]). After having been frozen out by Chicago coaches and players for more than twenty years, Illinois quickly became the destination of choice for elite players from the Chicago Public League.
With Champaign as the new "place to be" for top flight Chi-Town talent, it wasn't long before Illinois started to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. The 1984 Fighting Illini made it to the Elite Eight and came within one referee's whistle from beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena (Kentucky's home court) and making it to the Final Four. So controversial was the call that allowed Kentucky to escape Illinois and advance to the '84 Final Four, that the NCAA subsequently banned teams from playing on their home courts in the NCAA Tournament.
But the disappointment of the Elite Eight aside, 1984 marked Illinois' official arrival on the national scene. By the end of the decade, the Illini had a roster stocked with McDonald's All Americans and future NBA first round draft picks -- all of whom hailed from the state of Illinois (and the Chicago area in particular). And Illinois, which hadn't been to a Final Four since the 1950's, steamrolled its way to the Final Four in 1989.
However, Illinois' gain was DePaul's loss. After Ray Meyer's retirement in 1984, DePaul found it nearly impossible to recruit players from Chicago. DePaul managed to remain a national power through the end of the decade, but by the late 80's, Ray Meyer's replacement -- his son, coach Joey Meyer -- had no Chicago Public League players on scholarship. And it had become common knowledge in Chicago basketball circles that a boycott (unofficial) against DePaul was being enforced by powerful Public League coaches.
Illinois had been on a meteoric rise throughout the 1980's. And after having locked down the Chicago Public League and having reached the '89 Final Four, the Illini appeared to be destined for great things in the 1990's.
But the NCAA put Illinois on probation in the early 90's, and as a result, Lou Henson spent the twilight of his Illinois career with a program that finished in middle of the Big Ten pack year after year, and which made one early exit from the NCAA Tournament after another.
And after it became obvious that Illinois was likely to be left out of the 1996 NCAA Tournament, Illinois pressured Henson to retire. Thus, Lou Henson -- the man who had turned Illinois into a nationally prominent basketball program -- spent the final moments of his Illinois career patrolling the sidelines in a half full Assembly Hall, as his Illini faltered in an embarrassing home loss to Alabama in the first round of the '96 N.I.T.
As for DePaul, Joey Meyer's program never regained the level of prominence that they had enjoyed in the 70's and 80's. Meyer did, however, manage to keep the program respectable throughout the early and mid 90's. And although DePaul had ceased being fixture in the NCAA Tournament, they still made it to the dance every other year or so. And in the years in which they did not get invited to the NCAA Tournament, they almost always made it to the N.I.T.
But DePaul alumni and fans had become restless. They still viewed DePaul as a college basketball power. And they were demanding a return to the glory days. What's more, they increasingly attributed DePaul's fall from elite status to one source: Joey Meyer. To DePaul partisans, Meyer's failure to rope in the Chicago Public League stars -- combined with what they considered to be his questionable in-game coaching prowess -- had been the downfall of the program.
And after DePaul finished with a sub .500 record in 1997, the university pushed Joey Meyer out the door.
By 1998, DePaul and Illinois both had new coaches in Pat Kennedy and Lon Kruger, respectively. Kennedy's first recruiting class included Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams: the three top players from the Chicago Public League in the class of 1998. And within the blink of an eye, Kennedy and DePaul had the Public League on virtual lock down.
Whispers of shady dealings and questionable recruiting practices at DePaul began to circulate. And those whispers got louder with each successive Pat Kennedy recruiting haul. In three short years, Pat Kennedy had completely turned the tables and become the de facto king of basketball recruiting in the city of Chicago.
Illinois' Kruger, by contrast, was boycotted by the Public League coaches from the minute he set foot in Champaign in 1996. And although Illinois made a quick return to prominence under Kruger -- including winning the Big Ten title in 1998 -- Chicago remained hostile to Illinois and to Kruger, in particular.
Unable to sign a single player out of Chicago, Lon Kruger began to look downstate for talent.
Fortunately for Kruger and the Illini, downstate Illinois was full of basketball talent in the mid and late 1990's.
Peoria Manual won an unprecedented four consecutive Illinois state championships from 1994 to 1997 (which is all the more impressive when one considers the caliber of talent that inhabited high school basketball in Illinois during those years -- including future NBA players Kevin Garnett, Melvin Ely, Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons, Tyrone Nesby, Antoine Walker, Corey Maggette, etc). Kruger signed a trio of Peoria Manual stars from the Rams' 1997 IHSA Class AA championship team: Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and McDonald's All American Frank Williams (McClain and Griffin graduated from Peoria Manual in 1997; Williams graduated in 1998). In 1999, Kruger signed another McDonald's All American from downstate Illinois -- future NBA forward Brian Cook of Lincoln, IL.
On the surface, Lon Kruger seemed to have the Illinois program in great shape. But Kruger found the hostility that he encountered, courtesy of Chicago's basketball power brokers, to be more than he could handle. And when the NBA came calling in 2000, Lon Kruger left Illinois to become the head coach of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.
Bill Self replaced Lon Kruger at Illinois before the 2000/'01 season. And with a roster comprised primarily of downstate players (courtesy of Lon Kruger), Self took Illinois to the Elite Eight in 2002.
Self left Illinois for Kansas in 2003, but Illinois finished 37-2, spent most of the season ranked #1 and went to the Final Four -- where they lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Championship game -- under new coach Bruce Weber in 2005.
And coming into this season, Illinois had the second most wins of any college basketball program this decade, second only to Duke. But even after all of Illinois' recent success, Bruce Weber absolutely has not been able to recruit in Chicago.
DePaul is no longer a national power. But they're slowly starting to attract relatively highly regarded recruits -- including players from Chicago.
Illinois and DePaul have long battled each other for the services of Chicago's best high school basketball players. At least with regard to recruiting, the two schools have been bitter rivals for nearly thirty years.
And that's why they absolutely refuse to take their bitter rivalry to the place where it most belongs: the basketball court.
But guess what?
After Illinois loses to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament tonight, and after they find themselves having been left out of the NCAA Tournament this Sunday, the Illini will accept a bid to the NIT.
DePaul will also be in the NIT.
And most likely, Illinois and DePaul will -- at long last -- face each other on the basketball court ... in the NIT.
My prediction turned out to be off base. Illinois did get invited to the NCAA Tournament. However, they blew a 14 point second half lead (with only 2:00 minutes left to play, no less!) and ended up losing to Virginia Tech in the Tournament's first round. DePaul lost to Kansas State in the first round of the NIT.