Chicago State’s road to Division I relevance has been a long one, and the journey is still far from a success. But the Cougars made another step in the right direction by joining the Western Athletic Conference for the 2013-14 season, with league play beginning this Saturday at Idaho.
“Our credibility has been off the charts,” head coach Tracy Dildy said. “Our recruiting — we are now able to recruit a different kind of student athlete. Being part of the WAC has really helped us in every aspect of college athletics and that’s what you want.”
Dildy has already received letters of intent from high school seniors Anthony Glover and Josh Meier and a verbal commitment from junior college guard Devin Foster for next year’s class. Three-star shooting guard Dominique Matthews is also showing interest in Chicago State, and signing a player of his caliber could elevate the program to a new level.
Becoming a contender in a higher caliber league is going to take time, and Dildy is realistic about that. Although his Cougars made school history last season with a conference tournament championship and postseason berth, that title was in the Great West and the postseason appearance was in the Collegeinsider.com Tournament (CIT).
Despite that success, Chicago State still finished only 11-22.
The WAC is not as good as it has been in previous years after Denver, Louisiana Tech, and Utah State defected to other leagues, but there is still higher quality opposition. New Mexico State is a premier mid-major program; Seattle has emerged as a contender with an 8-5 non-conference record; and Idaho, Utah Valley, and Cal State Bakersfield all have the pieces to make them competitive in almost any mid-major conference.
“We definitely have to make a transition,” Dildy said. “For us to really make a run at the league, it’s going to take a couple of years to get that type of student athlete — and we know that. … As far as being a team where [we’re a contender] year in and year out, like the New Mexico States and Seattles, it’s going to take a couple of years to get there.”
Though overmatched, Chicago State’s veteran roster could allow the Cougars to steal a few victories and work its way towards a middle-of-the-pack finish. The team is packed with upperclassmen with seniors Quinton Pippen and Matt Ross leading the way.
Pippen, the nephew of NBA Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen, was named to the preseason All-WAC Second Team, and he has lived up to that billing. He leads Chicago State with 14.6 points, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. Though he is only a 32.6% three-point shooter, he can catch fire and drill triples from NBA range, much like his uncle. In his last two games, Pippen is 9-of-20 (45%) from deep.
Ross is averaging career highs of 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, and he can also stretch the floor with 1.4 three-pointers per contest.
Junior Clarke Rosenberg already showed promising signs as a sophomore, but this season he has been Chicago State’s most improved player, averaging 14.2 points on 52.8% field-goal shooting.
Add in seniors Nate Duhon, Eddie Denard, and Corey Gray, and this team could pull off a few upsets over the next two months.
The Cougars did turn a few heads when they took DePaul into overtime on the road, but they failed to complete the upset in a 77-70 defeat. They also have a respectable win against in-state foe Southern Illinois of the Missouri Valley Conference. Although the Salukis are only 4-8 this season, they have had some championship years in the MVC. Showing that Chicago State deserves to be in the same conversation as a team like Southern Illinois is exactly what the Cougars need to earn some more attention.
The Cougars have shown an ability to hang with teams of a higher level, but whether they can hang with them, and ultimately beat them, on a nightly basis is another story.
“One thing we’ll do, our guys are going to compete, and they are going to play hard each night,” Dildy said. “When you talk about talent level, we’re way, way, way behind in that area. We’re going to prepare, we’re going to scout, and we’re going to try to beat the better teams in this league.”
And how will Dildy’s guys beat these better teams, the New Mexico States and Seattles?
One of his methods is to push the tempo with the hope of unsettling the opponent. Chicago State averages 70.2 possessions per game, with only UMKC at 72.8 possessions ranking higher in the WAC. On average, the other seven teams in the league play 66.9 possessions per contest.
“One of the things we take pride in is really trying to make teams feel uncomfortable — we’re going to try to get after teams, speed them up,” Dildy said. “You’ve got to try to get teams our of their comfort zone.”
Saturday night marks the Cougars real induction to the WAC as they travel to Idaho for a 9 p.m. CT tip.
The matchup will be difficult, which is something that Chicago State has heard many times this season and will continue to hear through March. The Vandals have the second-most efficient offense in the conference and a trio of stars in Stephen Madison, Connor Hill, and Glen Dean.
But what Idaho and most other WAC teams do not have are seven seniors who have experienced a conference title and postseason competition, in which the Cougars hold much pride.
“We’re going to use that to our advantage, to say, ‘We have gone to the postseason, won a conference tournament,'” Dildy said. “But we are still going to try to build off that. We did it with guys’ hard work, and with guys buying in. I think that’s going to play some part as we enter the conference.”