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Streak-busting road win helps Chicago State avoid wrong side of history

The Cougars’ from-scratch roster is showing signs of life in the second year of Lance Irvin’s rebuild.

NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Lance Irvin learned something new as he settled down on Wednesday night.

It had been a good night for the second-year Chicago State coach. He’d been at the center of a jubilant water fight after his Cougars had won at SIU Edwardsville, notching the program’s first road win in a very long time. The winless road streak stretched all the way back to 2017, a full season and change before Irvin had gotten the job.

As the celebration died down and he got back to his hotel room, Irvin planned to watch tape, but figured he’d turn on ESPN for a bit first. And there, being sent into countless homes and devices across the country, was Scott Van Pelt talking about Irvin’s team.

“I saw Chicago State and I was like, ‘huh?,’” Irvin said. “I saw the highlights and heard what he said and I was like, ‘what?’”

Then the tweets and texts came. What Van Pelt was talking about was just how long that losing streak had been. At 53 games, the Cougars road losing streak had been on the outskirts of the NCAA record: 56. The win at Edwardsville, in which CSU had overturned a 13-point first half deficit, helped the program avoid that Joe DiMaggio-esque piece of college basketball infamy.

In typical coaches’ fashion, Irvin said he had simply been focused on the next game, but was happy nonetheless the statistical oddity had been put to bed.

“Truthfully I didn’t know it was a road losing streak like that. I was just looking forward to the next game. I know I wanted to win a road game,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’m glad we didn’t break the record. I don’t want any part of that.”

What Irvin has been a part of, however, is a CSU program that has shown signs of life in his second season.

As any casual college basketball fan knows, the Cougars rebuild was not for the faint of heart. After a good debut season in the WAC in 2013-14, the program had sagged with single digit win totals and sub-300 KenPom ratings each year since. That included winless WAC campaigns in 2015-16 and then last year, Irvin’s first on the job. Coupled with a budgetary crisis that hit the university a few years ago, it was a daunting task.

But in Irvin, the school found an experienced coach brimming with optimism that was an icon in the Chicago basketball community. The fit was obvious.

“You know how people like stocks?” he said in an interview shortly after he was hired. “I thought it was a stock that had really good potential.”

But as he was hired in August of last year, he had very little time to assemble and drill his first team. With the benefit of an entire offseason this past year, Irvin brought in 10 new players, making the Cougars one of the “newest” teams in the country. Of teams that played in Division I last year, only Nebraska has fewer returning minutes, per KenPom.

That avalanche of new players includes point guard Xavier Johnson, a JuCo transfer from Dallas that has had a star turn in the season’s first month. Johnson scored 23 points in the win over the SIUE, including a perfect 13-13 from the free throw line. But it was what he did in other areas of the game that impressed his coach.

“He’s always been a gifted scorer, but [against SIUE] he did a good job not turning the ball over and playing defense,” Irvin said. “That’s learning the Division I game, you have to be able to guard — and I’m not really happy until you guard.”

Johnson started the season with a 37-point, WAC Player of the Week-worthy effort at home against Judson, an NAIA school. That was one of four home games for the Cougars over the season’s first 15 days, a welcome departure from the program’s usual slog of opening season buy games on the road against high major competition. They went 3-1 over that stretch, and while all three wins came against non-Division I teams, Irvin said it provided a boost for a team still learning to play together.

“Any time you’re playing with 10 new guys you really don’t know each other, and instead of doing it in practice, that was huge to do it in games and play those games at home,” he said. “Once again it’s still a learning process, but as we continue to get better and guys trust their teammates, we’ll be fine.”

Despite some lopsided November losses, there have been other positives along the way. Led by Johnson (16.3 PPG, 86.0 FT%) and fellow JuCo transfer guard Andrew Lewis (14.9 PPG, 84.9 FT%) the team has been adept at getting the line and converting when there. Solomon Hunt and Ke’Sean Davis — another pair of JuCo transfers — have also flashed rebounding potential that will be key for the Cougars to compete on a nightly basis in the WAC.

And with the record streak-avoiding win at SIUE, the 4-6 Cougars have already surpassed their win total from last year. They play at Tennessee State on Friday and if the still-gelling team continues to improve, they may just start a streak in the other direction.