Northwestern takes on fellow Cook County private school DePaul on Saturday, resuming an on-again, off-again rivalry. College basketball, while put on a national stage with the chaos of March, is fueled in the cold winter months by intense rivalry matchups both within and outside of conference play.
Chicago, one of America’s great cities, has also been a great source for some of the best basketball talent in every generation. The Windy City has produced Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and Anthony Davis, among others, while also witnessing the greatness of Michael Jordan and his Bulls’ dynasties.
Chicago’s college basketball scene came to the forefront with Loyola’s run to the 2018 Final Four. The Jesuit school on the shores of Lake Michigan went on a Cinderella run, powered by some amazing buzzer-beaters and divine intervention from Sister Jean. Despite Loyola’s success, the other prominent Division 1 programs of Chicago have stalled.
Northwestern basketball, a long-dormant Big Ten program, broke through the previous year to make the NCAA tournament for the first time yet has stalled in the three seasons since to sustain success. DePaul had a ton of successes in the seventies and eighties, and both UIC (which made the NCAA Tournament 3 times from 1998 to 2004) and Chicago State are relative newcomers to Division One basketball.
The city’s college basketball programs have no unified competition and lack a sustained rivalry which would peak the interest of both casual fans, diehards, alumni, and students. A phenomenal city like Chicago deserves a college basketball scene fitting of its greatness, and, with the precedent of Philadelphia’s Big 5, a yearly round-robin tournament featuring Chicago’s college basketball teams could be huge in fostering rivalries and interest in the basketball programs of these universities.
Philly’s Big 5
For those unaware, Philadelphia’s Big 5 consists of the University of Pennsylvania, LaSalle University, St. Joseph’s University, Villanova University, and Temple University. Four of the schools are located within the city limits of Philadelphia, while Villanova is located in a Main Line suburb. These five schools have competed for the “city championship” every year since 1999 (after several hiatuses after 1985) for unofficial bragging rights, playing 4 games against each other in a round robin format. Multiple schools have shared the title on separate occasions. All five schools have had relative success against each other within this format, highlighted by Penn’s ending ‘Nova’s streak of five straight Big 5 championships last season.
Perhaps the intense interest in the Big 5 is centered around the success of the programs which participate in it: Villanova has two national titles under Jay Wright. Penn is a regular Ivy League contender; Temple is an NCAA tournament regular, while LaSalle and St. Joe’s have also found success this decade. Chicago’s college basketball teams haven’t necessarily matched the prominence of these programs, yet the concept of a Chicago city championship could be a huge factor in drawing in the public and media, something helpful in a recruiting and publicity sense.
Chicago’s City Championship
Historical and recent successes aside, one can find parallels between Philadelphia’s Big 5 and Chicago’s potential Big 5. The selection of Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (Horizon League), Chicago State University (WAC), Loyola University (MVC), and DePaul University (Big East) incorporates four schools directly located in Chicago. Northwestern, as Inside NU readers know all too well, is located just outside of the city in Evanston, but markets itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”
While the ‘Cats have recurring meetings with DePaul and have matched up against both Chicago State and UIC in non-conference play, they have not had any meetings with the school closest to them: Loyola. A yearly trip up or down Sheridan Road could foster a rivalry between the two schools and be a huge deal in Chicago’s college basketball scene. Loyola Head Coach Porter Moser has recruited players such as Donte Ingram and Lucas Williamson from Chicago high schools. From a recruiting standpoint, a Loyola-Northwestern rivalry could be huge as each program tries to tap into the great high school talent scattered throughout the Chicago area.
Another seemingly natural rivalry that could arise from a Big 5 scenario would be a DePaul-Loyola rivalry. The two schools haven’t met since 2012. However, both schools are located on Chicago’s North Side and were founded and currently run by different orders of Catholic priests (Vincentian and Jesuit). Philadelphia has the “Holy War” between Villanova and St. Joe’s within the Big 5, as these schools are also run by different orders of priests.
Ultimately, a city series among Chicago’s (and Evanston’s) five college basketball programs could further the pageantry of college basketball in one of America’s greatest cities. While from a scheduling standpoint with monster conferences, pre-season tournaments, and financial obligations, such a proposal might be impractical, perhaps there is a way to make it work.
At the same time, while the Allstate Arena could be a good venue for this intra-city series, much like the Palestra on Penn’s campus, putting these games on campus and encouraging student, fan, and alumni turnout alike could be massive fostering the atmosphere of these games.
This may seem like a far-fetched, idealistic vision of college basketball in the city of Chicago, but with Chicago’s professional sports on a downward trajectory and all this incredible high school talent coming from the city, perhaps it’s time for Chicago’s college basketball programs to take center stage.