Hey, Chicago! Hey, Illinois!
The Big Dance is starting, and you’re sitting there like some dateless halfwits outside the ballroom door.
No Northern, Southern, Eastern or Western Illinois in the NCAA tournament. No plain old Illinois or Illinois State. No UIC. No DePaul or Bradley.
No Illinois College of Optometry. That school, located at 3241 S. Michigan Ave., doesn’t have a basketball team, but it came just as close to making the tournament as, say, Northwestern (0-for-life) or one-time champion Loyola.
So what do you do, other than fill out your brackets, throw a few bucks into the office pool and feel pretty much like a voyeur as you watch pals, foaming alums and even presidents (Barack Obama acts as though he went to a hundred basketball universities) go wild with joy and anguish?
You adopt a school. A state. A place that matters. And that is Wisconsin, folks.
That goes not only for the school and the men’s basketball team, but for the cows, lakes, summer camps and roadside taverns. You adopt the color red and make that striped weasel, Bucky Badger, your patron saint.
Why do you do this? I’ll give you plenty of reasons.
Let’s start with this: As noted, there is nothing — nothing — to root for in this basketball-challenged state or city. It’s as though the governmental morons who have run our state and local finances below the danger zone and into the tar pit of ruin also have run our college hoops programs into bankruptcy.
Wallowing in stupidity and bad planning is no fun. Sadness abounds in our daily lives. It’s time to party!
So we root for the quality Big Ten champion located just 180 miles from Chicago, up there in Madison. It’s the state capital where everybody seems to hate each other, but at least the tractors run on time.
Wisconsin, in case you haven’t noticed, is 31-3 and won an overtime thriller Sunday against Michigan State at the United Center to add the Big Ten tournament crown to its regular-season title.
Wisconsin is in the conference that features the best basketball schools in the Midwest. (Please don’t get me started on Rutgers and Maryland or even Penn State and Nebraska — or the fact that there are 14 Big Ten schools.) So it is reasonable to throw in with the Badgers. It is reasonable because they have been given the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, opening against nine-loss Coastal Carolina.
No. 1 seeds never have lost an opener in the NCAA tournament, so we seem guaranteed of some visceral pleasure for at least a spell. We could use that, right?
Then there’s this: The leader of that Bo Ryan-coached team is 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky, the player of the year in the Big Ten and a Chicago-area native. His dad, Frank Sr., grew up on the South Side and played basketball at St. Rita High School and Lewis University in Romeoville.
Kaminsky’s mom played volleyball at Northwestern. Kaminsky himself played high school hoops at Benet Academy in Lisle. His best friend at Benet, guard Dave Sobolewski, took a full ride to Northwestern and played his last game Thursday, when the Wildcats lost to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament.
You might want to stop reading here because this hurts. Kaminsky, whose uncle Jim Stack and aunt Karen Stack both played for Northwestern, wanted to play for the Wildcats and was recruited by the school, but then-coach Bill Carmody didn’t think enough of him to show up during his visit to the Evanston campus.
And we wonder why the bad stay bad.
Kaminsky isn’t the only terrific player on the Badgers, either. Forward Nigel Hayes does everything from score to rebound, and guard Bronson Koenig (17 second-half points against Michigan State) and forward Sam Dekker are big-timers.
Can Wisconsin go all the way? It’ll be tough. If the Badgers can make it to the Final Four, they likely will have to play undefeated Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country and a school more closely resembling the NBA All-Rookie team of 2016.
But no matter. Watch Wisconsin and root for a towering Illinois lad who, naturally, got away. You could root for teensy Tyler Ulis at Kentucky, but rooting for Kentucky is like rooting for Microsoft.
So Wisconsin it is.
That state needs us to fish in its lakes, drink its beer and flop down its water slides in the Dells.
So now we salute it and love it.
Everything but the cheeseheads, that is.