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Farewell To America’s Saddest College Basketball Conference

There are the haves. There are the have-nots. And then there is the Great West Conference — for whom having is, in fact, not having.

Starting tomorrow, the haves from America’s best basketball league — the Big Ten — will be fighting it out at the United Center for a chance to earn an automatic spot in the Big Dance. Pre-tourney prognostications have at least seven of these teams already dancing, regardless.

Meanwhile, 15 miles away on the South Side, the five basketball-playing schools of the Great West Conference will duke it out at Chicago State’s Jones Convocation Center, for a chance to earn a berth to the… 5th Annual CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.

It’s understandable if you didn’t see this event on the schedule.

Say what you want about the various floundering conferences in this era of hyper-realignment: they don’t have anything on the Great West – a conference that demands air-quotes around each of the words in its name. To wit:

“Great” as defined by Merriam-Webster: “Notably large in size.” But the Great West has five teams that hoop, making it in fact the smallest Division I basketball conference in the country. (The league has five other teams that compete in non-revenue sports.)

“West” as defined by Merriam-Webster: “To, toward, or in the west.” But the top seed going into the Great West Conference tournament is the New Jersey Institute of Technology. And, of course, the tournament is being hosted in Illinois (and the league commissioner is based in Naperville).

So sad is this conference that even in these perilously uncertain times for college athletics directors, the Great West’s member schools are looking at its all-but-official disbanding, post-season, as nothing short of a deliverance.

That’s certainly the case with Tracy Dildy (pictured), the third-year head coach at Chicago State, a program whose RPI ranking would make for a very respectable baseball batting average. The Cougars have never been to an NCAA tournament, and just last season were ruled ineligible for post-season play because of academics. Not that they necessarily missed much, considering the Great West doesn’t possess an automatic NCAA bid. For a small school, that’s basically the only opportunity for the limelight – and it makes recruiting, even against other low-major programs, a drag.

Dildy

“I’ve had those days and I’ve had those moments,” said Dildy, who played at Illinois-Chicago and has been an assistant at DePaul, Mississippi, Auburn and UIC. “Just where I’ve come from, to have a chance to be able to recruit anybody that I felt was good enough for the programs I’ve been at, to now be in a situation where you can’t get in a conversation with those type of guys.”

Though CSU will never be a destination for blue chip athletes, the program can’t imagine things will be tougher after it leaves the Great West.

Of the five basketball members, three (Chicago State, Texas-Pan American, Utah Valley) have committed to join the non-football Western Athletic Conference next year; a fourth (Houston Baptist) is headed to the Southland; and the fifth (New Jersey Institute of Technology) is still looking for its future home.

These aren’t exactly the brightest futures, but they’re futures.

The Great West started as a football league in 2004, but dropped the sport when all of the playing members bolted. It was left with Division I strugglers like Texas-Pan American (a school that was booted from the Sun Belt in 1998 because of corruption) and the aforementioned Chicago State, which left the Mid-Continent Conference in 2006. It was always more of a scheduling alliance than a real conference, and its relative youth and obvious instability made it a fraught candidate for Automatic Qualifier status.

Though the league’s membership will still stress its value — a conference tournament, scheduling stability, something to play for — the Great West’s demise seemed predestined, even before tectonic shifts began in college athletics.

In some ways, the plight of the conference could be compared to the Big East’s. Both are splintering because of outside forces, and both have struggled for survival, stretching the limits of what geographical names can actually mean.

That’s about where the similarities end.

For one, the Big East will survive in some form, and the rivalries the conference spawned will be memorialized. Meanwhile, few tears will be shed for the end of the Utah Valley-Houston Baptist rivalry.

The teams in Chicago this week are anxious for the final buzzer to sound on Saturday night, bringing to an end a conference that never made much sense from the start.

Chicago State Athletics Director Dan Schumacher says he’s already hard at work on expanding the school’s radio and television contracts. It’s “human nature” to be looking ahead, he demurred.

“We’re excited. We talk about it every day about how we’re preparing for next year,” Schumacher said.

It gives new meaning to the March Madness phrase, “survive and advance.”

Dildy compares this week’s tournament to Graduation Day: soon enough, he can cease trying to sell the CollegeInsider.com tourney to prospective recruits.

“We actually get to really join in the celebration and anticipate what can end up happening,” he said of the future.

In January 2012, sensing its impending doom, the Great West and its member university presidents, appealed to NCAA president Mark Emmert to override the bylaws and grant it the life-affirming AQ status. But no such dispensation was given.

By last May, the writing was on the wall; the implosion of the WAC all but finished the job as it poached much of the Great West to survive.

Aside from general league business, Conference Commissioner Ed Grom’s top priority is to help the conference’s one remaining orphan, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, find a home.

What he isn’t doing is planning for next season.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” he said. “It’s obviously our premier event of the year. But knowing that it’s going to be our last one kind of stings a little bit. But we’re going to put on a good event and hopefully we’ll have some good games.”

STORY ART: Photo of Dildy by Steve Woltmann/Chicago State.

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