Time has flown by fast as another college basketball season is upon us. Media days have concluded, preseason workouts have wrapped up, and exhibition games have been played. Now it’s time for the regular season to begin and as usual, the Chicago area is full of talent and they’re ready to make an impact nationally. Last month I previewed both Illinois and Northwestern. Here I will talk about Chicago’s other men’s hoops teams.
Specifically I’ll touch on the standout player for each local team. These are the guys that will be called upon to lead their teams this season, and hopefully guide their programs to victory. Last year three of Chicago’s teams took part in some sort of postseason tournament. Hopefully that number can increase this season.
Northern Illinois senior forward Levi Bradley–
This Wisconsin native was the Huskies second leading scorer (14.6 PPG) and leading rebounder (5.5 RPG) last year. This year, at least for the early part of the season, the Huskies will need him to assume full leadership and be the team’s best player. This is because last year’s leading scorer, Eugene German (20.6 PPG), along with two other players have been suspended indefinitely after being arrested near campus in October. Losing German is a major blow to an NIU team (13-19, 6-12 Mid-American last season) that was looking to turn around their dismal road record from last year (1-13) and get back into the postseason.
German nearly entered this year’s NBA Draft but ultimately decided to return to DeKalb. How the Huskies perform without him will go a long way in determining NIU’s success this season. But Bradley has proven to be a dependable player in his own right and this short-handed Huskies team will be counting on him.
Loyola sophomore center Cameron Krutwig–
Last season the 6-foot-9-inch powerhouse gave head coach Porter Moser something that he hasn’t really had during his tenure in Rogers Park, a dominant post presence. Before Krutwig arrived on campus, the Ramblers (32-6, 15-3 Missouri Valley last season) were mostly known for heavy guard and perimeter play. But the 255-pound Krutwig (10.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG last year) changed all of that and was a major force that guided Loyola to it’s first Final Four since 1963.
The Ramblers lost some key players from last season to graduation so Krutwig will be asked to take on more of a leadership role this year. The Missouri Valley Conference will be tough again this season, especially with Illinois State, Bradley, and Southern Illinois returning talent to compete. But Krutwig is a rarity in today’s college game and his presence alone could make all of the difference.
DePaul guards Jalen Coleman-Lands and Max Strus-
Heading into their second season at Wintrust Arena, the Blue Demons (11-20, 4-14 Big East in 2017-2018) look to have their first winning season since 2007 (made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT that year). The backcourt combination of Coleman-Lands and Strus could help get them there. Coleman-Lands, now a redshirt junior, sat out last season after transferring from Illinois in the wake of the removal of John Groce as head coach. He averaged nine points, 1.5 assists, two steals, and 25 minutes per game down in Champaign, and now he looks to lead a DePaul team with 11 underclassmen to success in the always-competitive Big East Conference.
Strus (a senior) on the other hand is probably the best pure shooter on this team. He led the Demons last season in scoring (16.8 PPG), three-point shots made (81-of-243), field goals made (171-of-419), and averaged 35 minutes per contest. He also showed some defensive talent as he also led DePaul in blocked shots (16, rare for a shooting guard), he was second on the team in steals (40), and third in defensive rebounds (127). NBA scouts gave him a hard look and Strus did enter the draft, but he didn’t hire an agent which allowed him to withdraw and return to school. Now with both men on the court, the Blue Demons could be a more offensively imposing team this season.
Illinois-Chicago junior guard Marcus Ottey–
He’s one of three Canadian players on the Flames roster this year (20-16, 12-6 Horizon League the previous year), and last year he was the second leading scorer (13.8 PPG). UIC is another team that lost a significant amount of talent over the summer, and now Ottey is at the forefront of Steve McClain’s squad. This year the Flames are looking to capitalize on the programs first 20-win season since 2004, and they look to make their third consecutive postseason appearance under McClain (CBI semifinals in 2017, lost CIT Championship in 2018). The main reason why McClain has been able to turn this team around is due to the constant influx of talent that he’s been able to bring in. Ottey is another example of that talent, the question is do they have enough to finally win the Horizon League title?
Chicago State head coach Lance Irvin–
For the Cougars I’m going with their head coach as there is a new era on Chicago’s south side. Irvin comes from a well-known basketball family, and after his playing days were done he was assistant coach for various college and high school programs from 1991 to 2018. At CSU Irvin takes the reigns from Tracy Dildy who posted a 55-218 record from 2010 to 2018. Dildy, however, can be credited with leading the Cougars to their first-ever conference championship (2013 Great West) and their only postseason appearance (2013 CIT) as a Division-I program. But continued success eluded him afterwards. But for Irvin the hope is that his basketball pedigree combined his previous coaching stops will help make the Cougars (entering their sixth season in the Western Athletic Conference) a successful program long-term.
Notre Dame senior guard Rex Pflueger–
The Fighting Irish (21-15, 8-10 ACC last season) probably had the biggest roster turnover over the summer. Last season Pflueger was more of a role player, this season he’ll be a face of the team as they look to replace the losses from last season. Pflueger averaged eight points per game and was the third best three point shooter on the team last season (40-of-126). Expect those numbers to increase as the Irish look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. Injuries during the middle of last season caused the Irish to struggle during January and February (5-11 record for those months) which ultimately relegated them to the NIT where they were eliminated in the second round. Never underestimate head coach Mike Brey as he always finds a way to pull his team through.
Valparaiso freshman guard Javon Freeman–
The former Whitney Young standout surprised many by choosing to play college ball in Northwest Indiana instead of staying in the city limits. But Crusaders head coach Matt Lottich is hoping that the energetic point guard will help his team get back to the postseason for the first time since they played in the 2017 NIT. So far Freeman has showed the Valpo fans what he’s capable of as he scored 22 points and made 7-of-8 field goals as the Crusaders pounded DIV-III Concordia (IL) 121-65 on Tuesday night. Coach Lottich hopes that Freeman will have many performances like this during the course of the season.
The road to March Madness has begun…..