No NBA could be good for college hoops

Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy doesn’t want the NBA lockout to last forever, but he wouldn’t mind the sides taking a few more months to resolve their issues.

Growing up in Chicago, Dildy knows where the NBA and college basketball exist in the pecking order for the city’s fans. There’s the starting five of professional sports in Chicago with the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox dominating everyone’s interest. On the bench is college basketball, college football, minor league sports and high school sports.

“When you have a NBA game or a Chicago Bulls’ game on, most of your fans are going to watch the professionals,” Dildy said.

The hope for Dildy and most of the Chicago-area coaches is the absence of the NBA will bring Bulls’ fans into their arenas and spark local interest in college basketball.

“With the NBA lockout, I think college basketball all around is going to benefit,” Dildy said. “You got some fans out there who just need to be in an arena this time of year, so they’re going to find some college arenas. While it’s not good for the NBA, it’s good for college basketball at this time.”

UIC coach Howard Moore is hopeful all of the area teams got a piece of the pie.

“I think for all the city schools it would be great for people to find their niche,” said Moore, who also grew up in Chicago. “Whatever neighborhood you’re in, whether it’s West Loop, North Shore, Lincoln Park, you can find your own brand of basketball.

“I love it. We’re only a couple miles away from the United Center. If the United Center’s closed, come over to the Pavilion for us.”

Chicago-area college basketball hasn’t been a hot ticket for some time. Last season, DePaul led all area teams with an average of 7,676 fans. The Blue Demons were followed by Northwestern (5,291), UIC (3,099), Loyola (2,424) and Chicago State (1,179).

The attendance numbers fell well below what the professional teams average, but the college teams also have to compete with Chicago’s minor league sports and high school basketball for the entertainment dollar.

The Chicago Wolves, an AHL hockey team, averaged 7,463 fans at Allstate Arena in its 40 regular season games last season. The area will also have another minor league hockey team, the Chicago Express, debut this season at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.

Even high school basketball often draws more than the college teams. Last season’s matchup between Benet and Simeon at the UIC Pavilion drew 8,184 fans. When Glenbrook North and Jon Scheyer met Lawrence North and Greg Oden in 2006, there were 8,494 fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Comparably when No. 1 Ohio State played Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena last year, there were 8,117 fans.

“Chicago is a Bulls-first, high school-second, then college basketball kind of city,” ESPN college basketball analyst Stephen Bardo said.

DePaul is the annual leader in attendance among Chicago-area college basketball programs. In the past decade, it has drawn as low as 5,060 fans a game in 2001-2002 and as high as 10,551 fans in 2006-2007. Often, it’s fallen in between those two numbers, especially after its entrance into the Big East in 2005.

Like anywhere, success has driven attendance figures in Chicago-area college basketball.

DePaul was at its peak in the 1980s. While the Blue Demons were making NCAA tournament appearances almost every season, they attracted 10,000-plus from 1980-1992. Twelve of the program’s 15 most-attended games came in the 1980s.

In recent years, DePaul and nearly everyone else in the area have lost more than they have won. Last season, the five area teams combined for a 56-103 record and 20 of those wins were by Northwestern.

“When DePaul was in its prime, the city got behind them,” Bardo said. “Chicago college teams have struggled as of late. If one can catch fire this season, they might be able to take advantage of the lockout.”

Loyola's first-year coach Porter Moser had a similar thought. Moser doesn't believe the NBA lockout will affect area college basketball attendance, but does believe a team could rise to the city’s attention with some success.

“Everybody in Chicago is craving a college team to step up,” Moser said. “I don’t think the lockout will have any bearing. I think what each of us have to do in Chicago is concentrate on their own program, the recruiting, how we’re winning, how’s we’re playing. I think Chicago is such an awesome sports town that it’ll take care of itself. I think they’re ripe to get behind a team.”

Northwestern is the likely team to be successful again this season. The Wildcats return four starters from last year’s NIT quarterfinal squad.

Northwestern’s attendance average last season was its highest since the 1994-1995 season. The Wildcats are hopeful that with a talented team and an ever stronger marketing push they’ll have more fans this season with or without the NBA lockout.

“We think we have an incredible product this year led by All-American candidate John Shurna,” Northwestern senior associate athletic director for external affairs Mike Polisky said. “We’re hoping that people who haven’t given us a shot would. We have a big Chicago mindset. We hope everything works out with the Bulls. We don’t want to look like we’re taking advantage of that situation.”

DePaul coach Oliver Purnell saw it differently. While he wasn’t cheering for a lockout, he did believe the Blue Demons could benefit from it.

“We’re always marketing,” Purnell said. “We’re always looking to attract more interest to our program in our infant stages. If there’s a NBA lockout, we’ll certainly take advantage of that.”