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44 days ‘til opening day: Ranking the mid-majors in the 44th president’s home state

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Illinois-Chicago Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Sept. 27 and we’re just 44 days from opening day.

Without going full political, this 44-themed post is tangentially related to the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. He made his name in the state of Illinois which, despite the former president’s love of the game, has not seen basketball success on the mid-major level in recent years.

Of the ten programs in the state, none has made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007. Things looked relatively rosy in the early 2000s, with UIC, Eastern Illinois, Bradley and Southern Illinois making at least one appearance each from 2001-2007. But in the last few decades, the only team with a prolonged run of success was the MVC domination by Bruce Weber, Matt Painter and Chris Lowery at SIU from 2001-2007.

Will the NCAA Tournament drought be broken this upcoming season? Chances aren’t bad that it will. Here’s a ranking of the ten programs by how likely it is they’ll cut down the nets at their respective league tournament this season.

(And don’t worry, we’ll balance things out tomorrow with a post dedicated to the 43rd president)

  1. UIC (Horizon)
  2. Illinois State (MVC)
  3. Loyola Chicago (MVC)
  4. Southern Illinois (MVC)
  5. Eastern Illinois (OVC)
  6. Bradley (MVC)
  7. Northern Illinois (MAC)
  8. Western Illinois (Summit)
  9. Chicago State (WAC)
  10. SIU Edwardsville (OVC)

UIC, Illinois State, Loyola Chicago and Southern Illinois fall into the same category: legitimate conference contender.

The Flames are not the Horizon favorite, as that probably goes to Oakland. Northern Kentucky has a case as well. But Twitter-maestro Dikembe Dixson is arguably the league’s best player, and along with Tai Odiase (11.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG), creates the Horizon’s best frontcourt. That should put UIC right in the mix.

The other three are among the pool of MVC programs jockeying for position in a post-Shockers world. Illinois State lost Paris Lee to graduation, and then Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh transferred. That removes three key players from a 28-win team, but the Redbirds still have athletic big Phil Fayne, incoming Saint Louis transfer Milik Yarbrough and a raised floor under Dan Muller.

Loyola Chicago similarly loses an uber-important piece in Milton Doyle, but still has a collection of talented guards led by Aundre Jackson. The Ramblers could have the MVC’s best offense this upcoming season. And for its part, SIU adds its own Saint Louis transfer in Marcus Bartley and gets back a dangerous three-point shooter in Tyler Smithpeters (career 39.6 3P%), who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

None of the four are expected to be the class of their respective conferences, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them won a league tournament in March.

Eastern Illinois has gone 38-33 in OVC play over the past four years and only really had one senior in its rotation last season. Bradley was even younger, won four of its last five games and has a potential star in sophomore point guard Darrell Brown. Neither is at the bottom of their respective league, but both look to be a year or two away from serious contention.

Northern Illinois (Marin Maric), Western Illinois (Garret Covington) and Chicago State (Trayvon Palmer) all lose a key player to either graduation or transfer. CSU and SIUE are both coming off one-win league seasons. It would take an incredible run from any of these four to break the Illinois drought.