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A Weekend With The Underdog: The Chicago State Cougars

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“TOGETHER on three.. SHOCK THE WORLD on six!”

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you’ve never been in a locker room right before an emotional sporting event, I can tell you that it’s a very powerful experience. But being in the locker room of an underdog, who for one night is looking to prove everyone but the very people in that same locker room wrong, is an indescribable event. We had the opportunity to do just that, as we got to hang with The Chicago State Cougars Men’s Basketball team in the form of an all-access pass into their program as they prepared for their regular season opener against Indiana University at historic Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. Chicago State was a huge underdog, but they fully expected to shock the world for one night.

Before we get into the narrative of this Chicago State team and their experience in Bloomington, I want to give you an idea of the degree of difference between CSU and Indiana University from a financial and numbers aspect. Chicago State University is located deep in the South side of Chicago and this is their first year as a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Chicago State’s current enrollment is around 5,000 where IU’s is around 45,000. CSU’s total expenses per year on athletics reach around 5.1 million, where as Indiana’s number is around 70 million. Chicago State is considered to be what the NCAA calls a “low resource institution”, which means they are in the bottom 10% of the NCAA in athletic budget finances. In talking with their Athletic Director, Dan Schumacher, and Associate Athletic Director, Nino Berticelli, they explained some very interesting facts that the casual NCAA fan may not be educated on. They touched on the specific amounts of money that smaller schools receive from playing these bigger schools, which is referred to as “guaranteed money” and how essential it is to the continued development of the athletic programs. A school like Chicago State will make anywhere from $70,000 to $90,000 for going and playing an upper tier University like Indiana. Chicago State’s basketball program brings in around $500,000 a year, which is then in turn, re-invested into the general operations of the athletic department. The most alluring bit of information that Mr. Schumacher elaborated on though, is the fact that while the guaranteed money is so crucial to the advancement of these small universities, it is assumed that the larger school is paying these small schools for a win, and once a small program goes in and beats a big program on their home court, the guaranteed money is essentially never offered again. With all of that being said, there is no doubt that a small school would rather be receiving no guaranteed money simply as a result of the on field/court success of their programs.

With this specific Chicago State basketball team, the credence of that as a regular occurrence is unquestionably feasible. An experienced team that is loaded with eight Seniors and four Juniors, confidence and poise is not unfamiliar to this group of young men. Led by head coach and former University of Illinois-Chicago point guard, Tracy Dildy, there have already been some preseason forecasting by college experts who have this CSU team as a potential surprise throughout the 2013-14′ season. Like our friends over at Bleacher Report, who have the Cougars as a conceivable cinderella story come March Madness time.

I initially met the team late Thursday night, twenty-four hours prior to tip-off, as I got to sit in on CSU’s practice in an empty Assembly Hall in what was an intense and methodical, but also calm atmosphere. As it was apparent that some of the players were a bit wide-eyed by the eminence of Assembly Hall and the idea of playing in front of a sold out crowd of 17,000+ IU fans, the first thing I heard coach Dildy tell his team was, “Fellas, it’s simple. It’s just a game. It’s an arena. There’s going to be a basketball and two rims. There’s going to be some refs and there’s going to be some fans.”  As I spent more time with the team, it was apparent that Coach Dildy’s emotive and almost father-like approach to coaching was a sizable component to the identity of this team. After just being around him for a couple of hours, it was evident that he was successfully opportunistic when it came to expressing to his players the bigger picture of moments like the one they were about to embark on. This was exemplified best when he mentioned to me, “I try to tell these kids that you get opportunities in life where you really get the chance to do something special. Once in a lifetime type moments. When you get older, these are the memories you can’t explain, but you are able to cherish. This is one of those moments.” As we talked about some of his coaching influences, Coach Dildy related to me that this experience in Bloomington was also one of significance for him as well, as Bobby Knight was the one coach whom he had the ultimate respect for and had the most influence on him as he was growing up and getting into the coaching profession.

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The opportunities that Coach Dildy spoke of will be plentiful this season as the Cougars travel to play the likes of Illinois, DePaul, Creighton and Cincinnati on top of the season opener in Bloomington. Seniors Quinton Pippen (SF) (who is the Nephew of Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen), Matt Ross (PF), Jamere Dismukes (PG) and Eddie Denard (F), who are all Junior College transfers, are the foundation of this team and instill the veteran leadership that is necessary for teams looking to maintain acumen and momentum throughout the five month duration of a College Basketball season. While the Cougars were nearing  the behemoth assignment of playing against an Indiana team that was coming into the season hailing a top five recruiting class, and returning one of the best point guards in the Country in Yogi Ferrell, in talking to them you would have never known they were the underdog. When speaking on the match-up with the Hoosiers’ star, Ferrell, Cougars starting point guard Jamere Dismukes professed to me, “I honestly think I can be one of the best point guards in the Country, so why not play against the best.” In a round table style chat with these four seniors the general tone was one of poise and fearlessness, as Quinten Pippen confidently spoke, “We’re not playing to not lose. We’re playing to win. We circled this game on the schedule and said we want to start off our year right. We always see this team ranked and watch this team on TV, but we plan on coming in here and shocking them.” In sports, it’s very easy to become glazed with affection for a team and its players after getting to know them as individuals, but in all honesty, the demeanor of these young men had me entirely convinced that a major upset was on the menu for the following evening.

Three hours before tip-off on Friday, as the team bus pulled into the Assembly Hall player’s tunnel, the team’s mood had abundantly transformed. What was an openly vocal group the previous night, had quickly turned to concentrated and meticulous. Most of the team dawning headphones, listening to everything from Kendrick Lamar and Drake, to Meek Mill and Linkin Park, there was a plethora of intense eye contact and head nods being exchanged between the teammates in the locker room. As they gathered around the dry erase board to hear the coaches break down their game assignments and the Indiana player tendencies for the last time, the coaches’ main emphasis was to reassure the team of their own identity. With Coach Dildy adamantly professing, “Fellas, we pressure. That’s what we do. We averaged 9 steals and 14 turnovers a game last year. That’s who we are. Let’s not disappoint these fans. We got to give them what they expect. Especially in their house.” After an impassioned team prayer led by Coach, they huddled one last time and all put their hands in the middle. Point Guard Jamere Dismukes led the team in one final chant that was filled with conviction..” TOGETHER on three… SHOCK THE WORLD on six!!.. 1..2..3, TOGETHER.. 4, 5, 6, SHOCK THE WORLD!!”

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Fairly quickly into game action, it was apparent that Chicago State was not performing to the high expectations that they had held for themselves. Whether it was nerves or just lack of execution, they became distant from the qualities that make them such a formidable opponent. Their shot selection was questionable and they were not executing on the clean looks they did have. They were committing unnecessary fouls at a rapid rate and were getting out-rebounded by a large margin. When all was said and done CSU was defeated by Indiana by a total score of 100-72. The Cougars finished 21-for-81 from the field, were dominated on the glass by a tune of 62-36 and allowed Indiana to set a school record in made free throws with 45 successful charity stripe points. While the coaches and players will be the first to tell you that they were highly disappointed in their performance, within every loss there are always going to be some positives. To start, only six teams scored more than 72 points on IU last year, which is something to take pride in against a defensive based program that head coach Tom Crean puts so much emphasis in. CSU’s Junior guard Clark Rosenberg came off the bench to score 27 points in what was a very impressive performance on a big stage. Most important of all, in what was a locker room full of disappointment directly after the game, within 15-20 minutes, promptly became a locker room filled with hope and optimism. The leaders of the team became vocal, as Quinten Pippen said aloud to an unsettled locker room “Keep your head up. Let’s forget about it. We got thirty more games left. There is nothing we can do about this one now. Let’s focus on tomorrow.” And that exact quote is the beauty within sports. There is no time to ponder on your regular season losses. All you can do is assess the positives and negatives, learn and build from them, and move on to tomorrow’s challenges. Chicago State would have to do exactly that, as they played their second game of the young season in less than 16 hours, back at their home arena in Chicago. They collected their belongings from the visitors’ locker room, got back on the bus, and were on their way to a new day.

In wrapping up this story, I want to take you back to that empty Assembly Hall practice on Thursday night for a brief moment. After the conclusion of that practice, the last thing I did was take Coach Dildy and the four Senior leaders aside individually and asked them to provide me with “one word” that would be essential to their success the following evening. Unbeknownst to them, my question had little to do with the eventual score of the mountainous game and task before them, but instead was a way to gauge the character of the core individuals who will not only lead this team throughout the inevitable roller coaster of emotions that are laced within any athletic season at this level, but more importantly, the character of the individuals that will be guiding this young group of men into converting those ups and downs into a culture that assists this group in becoming better men not only on the court, but off the court as well. The five collective answers I received from Coach Dildy and his four Senior leaders were not your typical strategic X’s and O’s answers that you might expect from a team looking to upset a perennial powerhouse like Indiana University. Their answers were more indicative of a well coached team that exemplified the exact mentality that Coach Dildy referred to when he touched on emphasizing to his team that they need to be able to seize a substantial moment and cherish it.

The five answers were as follows: Opportunity. Togetherness. Faith. Family. Compete. Within a second of asking that question, I could tell it caught all of them off guard and took them to a place within themselves where they genuinely wanted to depict to me what definitive trait they believed a successful team should embody. I was certain too, that this group was well aware of the magnitude of the respective answers they communicated. All five of those words are much bigger than the game of basketball and when embraced by any individual in any walk of life, will undoubtedly generate positive results.

As I walked out of Assembly Hall and into the parking lot that night, even though Chicago State’s record was still 0-0 and they hadn’t stepped on a court for game competition yet, I knew that the Cougars 2013-14′ season was already a success.