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Chicago State suspends men’s basketball for rest of season

The Cougars finish at 0-9, but what comes next?

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

The 2020-21 season will go on without Chicago State.

The school announced on Wednesday that it was suspending all men’s basketball activities, effectively wiping out the rest of the team’s season. CSU Athletics Director Elliot Charles explained the decision in a release.

“It was a difficult decision, but a necessary decision in order to prioritize the health, wellness, and academic success of the student athletes,” said Elliott Charles, Athletics Director at Chicago State University.

The release also stated that the decision would not affect any other athletic program at the school, all of whose seasons will continue as scheduled. An FAQ provided by CSU expanded on the decision, listing the availability of student athletes due to injuries as a factor that was considered. It also made clear that the decision would not affect scholarships. At 0-9, the Cougars are the first team to finish a season winless since Grambling State went 0-28 in 2012-13.

There’s no current official indication on how this will affect scheduling or results in the WAC. The Cougars were scheduled to open their conference season at UT Rio Grande Valley on Jan. 8.

While seemingly unprecedented, the move probably shouldn’t be entirely surprising.

The Cougars are just days removed from facing Drake with only seven players available, and had to cancel a game at Iowa State on Dec. 22 due to an “insufficient number of players.” Additionally, the team had been without head coach Lance Irvin — a cancer survivor — who had opted out of the season for health reasons. They were being led by assistant Rodell Davis in interim, who was the sole coach on hand for the team’s Dec. 9 game at Loyola Chicago with an assistant “tending to his family,” per Jeff Goodman.

Senior guard Xavier Johnson seemed to indicate on Twitter that the men’s basketball players had not had a part in the decision.

Johnson may well be alluding in part to the last time the Cougars made national waves, as the first team to cancel games due to the then-nascent pandemic, scrapping a trip to Seattle in early March. That decision applied across the athletic department, with some players at the time coming out and saying that they had not been consulted prior to the respective programs being put on pause.

On the court, things had gone as might be expected for a program that has struggled in recent years. The Cougars were 0-9 and had been frequently blown out, losing each by no fewer than 10 points. While their most recent — and as it turn out, final — game was a lopsided loss at red-hot Drake, the Cougars did play their most competitive game of the season on Dec. 18, when they made an early second half push against Northern Illinois before ultimately falling by 10.

So what comes next on the South Side?

Johnson — the team’s leading scorer — seemed to indicate he was open to transferring through a retweet. In general, the decision was likely easier for the school to make considering the NCAA’s decision to grant all scholarship athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic. This was acknowledged in the FAQ, which also seemed to address questions about the viability of the program at the Division I level:

“...Chicago State University is committed to the continued enhancement of the men’s basketball program as a key priority in the development of our overall strategy towards maintaining competitive NCAA Division I athletic programs.”

In that vein, the decision comes at a particularly interesting time in the WAC. The league is seemingly poised to add a quintet of schools in the coming years, which includes Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian, Lamar and Southern Utah. That large number of potential newcomers would seem to suggest that the conference expects attrition elsewhere, though a bloated league would be nothing new in today’s landscape.

There’s no reported reason to suspect CSU would seek to leave the WAC, even as it seems closer to creating a real hub in the Southwest and West Coast. Kansas City, however, did return to the Summit this year in part due to the issues faced by having to travel in the country’s most geographically-diverse league.

Additionally, there’s no reported reason CSU would seek to leave the Division I ranks all together. It wouldn’t be responsible to speculate on this, though the budgetary issues facing the school and its athletics program in recent years are hard to ignore.

The program got a boost of energy when Irvin — a Chicago basketball icon — took over ahead of the 2018-19 season. He talked to us shortly before his debut season about why he thought CSU held potential, and what his first steps would be.

“I’m working the phones, just calling — I need some help. Chicago State is on the right path; it’s always been a good academic institution. If you ask people about the perception of Chicago State we have a great educational program, great school of pharmacy,” he said. “Those are the type of conversations I’m having with people all over the country, from California to Canada. It’s going in the right direction, we just have to keep moving and find the right fit. It’s a process and might take a little time since we’re growing and it still is a learning curve. Hopefully relationships will pay off.”

Irvin and his staff may well have the opportunity to drag the Cougars out of a difficult streak, but it won’t be this season.