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It Happens Every Autumn

September 30, 2002 Columns No Comments

It Happens Every Autumn

by Michael Ermitage

Mine team is undefeated. So is yours. Hope springs eternal in gyms from little Valparaiso to basketball giant Kansas. Why? Because October 15th is approaching. Like a seven-year old on Christmas Eve, I cannot wait. The official beginning to yet another college basketball season.

I fell in love with college hoops somewhere around 1991 right on the cusp of the “Fab Five” and Tark’s Runnin Rebels. I gave a speech on free throws that year, and included a piece on the abnormal style of Larry Johnson. You bet that’s “A” material. My love for the game, however, was dismissed in Chicago like a Jesse Jackson speech. Chicago is a professional sports town. A Bears, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox and Blackhawks town. The University of Illinois is like a cousin that you hope does well but you never really see. Northwestern University is the nerdy niece who once in a while stuns you at the family picnic when she smacks a double in the softball game. DePaul is the uncle who bores you with stories of yesteryear.

Luckily, for me, I spent my college years in Indiana. And nothing satisfies a hoops addiction like the state of Indiana. Despite the fact that a team from Indiana has not won a national championship since Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers captured the 1987 title. Despite the fact that no other team in the entire state has EVER won the title besides the Hoosiers. Well, Purdue, led by a spry John Wooden, won the 1932 championship, and Notre Dame won the 1926 and 1937 crowns, according to something called the Helms Foundation (NCAA Championships were first awarded in 1939). Despite all of that, nothing means more to Hoosiers than another hoops season born anew. And it is this spirit that all of us should embrace.

The beginning of the season clashes with its ugly cousin – college football. The national championship hunt in college football is about as formulaic as a Home Improvement episode. What are the chances that two powerhouse teams from separate Big Six conferences will end up in the championship game? Hmmmmmm. At least college basketball offers the mirage that small conference teams are included.

College football is a social activity. It is an excuse to drink at 7 a.m. Ever really look at a camera pan of a college football audience? There is always one guy sitting down, he’s had enough. Then there’s 10 sorority girls talking and you know they are much more interested in the next organized cheer than the next play. Or then there are the four guys who decided to paint their bodies because it afforded them the opportunity to take their shirts off. We all know these guys.

Next to Major League Baseball, no sport is more influenced by big dollars than college football. So, come October 15, I turn my attention to the hardwood, save a select few bowl games. And this season in college hoops will offer both the die-hard fan and the casual observer some interesting story lines. In every hoops season, there are always those story lines, and of course, that is the essence behind any sport. For so many of us, it is the journey, not the end result. Leave the national championship chase to the Dukes, the Arizonas, the Kansas’s.

Instead, turn your attention to Malibu, Calif. Yep, sun, surf and hoops. Former NBA coach Paul Westphal will have a scintillating squad this season, led by senior forward Jimmy Miggins. The Waves will certainly be worth staying up for in the East and the Midwest when Pepperdine is televised. Unfortunately, as with many good mid-major schools, the Waves lack the size and the depth to be a real national title contender.

Turn your attention to Carbondale, Ill. and head coach Bruce Weber. Weber worked under Gene Keady at Purdue for 18 years and emerged last year as one of the nation’s top mid-major coaches. He directed a senior-laden Salukis team to the Sweet 16. On his way there, he dropped Bob Knight and Texas Tech, which must have been sweet for the former Boilermaker. This season, however, will test Weber’s mettle as a coach, because he is without three seniors from last year’s squad. It is what coaches do without talent, or with young talent, or in years when everyone dismisses them – that eventually defines them.

Turn your attention to Milwaukee, Wisc. and the Marquette Golden Eagles. Some may forget that the Golden Eagles were terrific last season, topping Indiana, Cincinnati, and Gonzaga en route to a top 10 ranking. Of course, the first-round flameout to Tulsa is all that anyone remembers of 2002. Marquette’s coach Tom Crean is slowly emerging as one of the best coaches in the nation, and has one of the best players in the nation in Dwayne Wade. Wade is simply a joy to watch and is akin to the Yankees’ Alfonso Soriano in the “Oh My God that guy is athletic” category. Will Crean and Wade give Marquette back-to-back terrific seasons or will the Golden Eagles fall back into its previous position as Cincinnati’s whipping boy?

As the season progresses, many stories will emerge. Mid-majors will crack the Top 25 for the first time in school history. Number one teams will fall where no one thought they would. Star players will emerge from overseas, from tiny programs, from beyond the Top 100 recruiting lists of Bob Gibbons. It’ll be emotions up and down, disappointment and exultation, hope and despair.

It is almost that time. From Midnight Madness to One Shining Moment – its college basketball season. Embrace it.


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