Jalen Boyd of North Park University’s basketball team performs a dunk during practice this week.

Jalen Boyd of North Park University’s basketball team performs a dunk during practice this week.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

North Park is Chicago’s college basketball team of the moment — but nobody has been following it

On Friday, North Park (24-5) will play in the Division III Sweet 16 against Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.

Nestled on the corner of Kedzie and Foster avenues is a basketball gym. It’s not unlike any of the humble high school gyms that have helped define what the sport means to this city.

On one end is a stage that serves as a backdrop to the made field goals and free throws, layups and dunks executed on the basket that descends feet from a blue velvet curtain, which hides the equipment of productions performed when basketball isn’t played.

On the other end, surrounded by bleachers that can accommodate a crowd of 1,500, are the banners that represent the five national championships won between 1978 and 1987.

But this modest gym doesn’t bear the stains of the blood and sweat that define Chicago’s high school basketball culture. This one houses the city’s college basketball program of the moment, North Park University.

Nonetheless, the Division III program has flown virtually undetected in a city that lives for this game.

‘‘We’re not DePaul, the University of Illinois or any other program like that,’’ first-year head coach Sean Smith said. ‘‘Our team motto this year, because we have been at the bottom of Division III in a lot of ways, is: Nothing to lose and everything to prove.’’

Smith was hired last April to resurrect a team that finished the 2021-22 season with 10 victories, four in College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin play. He brought in nine transfers to join the four returning players.

On Friday, the eclectic bunch from all over the country will play in the Division III Sweet 16 against Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.

‘‘We were picked seventh out of nine [in the preseason coaches’ poll],’’ Smith said. ‘‘[That was] to be expected; no one knows me or our team. In our second conference game, we played the team picked No. 2 in the poll and won by 36 on the road.’’

North Park coach Sean Smith addresses his players during practice.

North Park coach Sean Smith addresses his players during practice.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

That was the night Smith said the light bulb went off for his team.

Smith didn’t have much to work with in terms of recruiting when he was hired. By spring, most high school seniors at the Division III level are decided. Between April and August, Smith and his staff were all over the transfer portal. Their selling point: ‘‘Be part of rewriting history that hasn’t been here in decades.’’

A number of Smith’s players’ careers began in the area, including returning twin forwards, Jalen and Jordan Boyd and one of his transfer signees guard Shamar Pumphrey. The Boyd brothers played for Illinois’ winningest high school basketball coach, Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph and Pumphrey graduated from Lindblom.

‘‘Some of us come from losing college programs, such as myself,’’ Pumphrey said ‘‘I knew I wasn’t doing that again.’’

The turnaround began with optional offseason workouts. Smith’s plan was to implement a system that included playing 40 minutes of full-court press. To do that, he had to convince his players to buy into preseason conditioning. His entire roster showed up all summer, and the results speak for themselves.

‘‘We turn people over,’’ Jalen Boyd said. ‘‘That’s our bread-and-butter.’’

Smith’s team led the CCIW with 575 forced turnovers this season, nearly 200 more than Carthage, the second-best team in the conference in that regard. Guard Marquise Jackson (76) and Pumphrey (71) are among the top 12 players in Division III in steals.

North Park’s Shamar Pumphrey runs a drill during practice this week.

North Park’s Shamar Pumphrey runs a drill during practice this week.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Defensively, the Vikings are in opponents’ faces, wearing them out. Smith calls it controlled chaos. Offensively, they are positionless. They aren’t the most efficient team in terms of field-goal percentage, but they’re shooting at a higher clip than opponents and lead the CCIW with 80.6 points per game.

On Wednesday afternoon, Smith’s team boarded a charter bus for the nearly seven-hour trip to Alliance. North Park has lost only two away games this season, but Mount Union is undefeated at home.

Despite their success, the Vikings are considered the underdog. The disrespect is nothing new for a team that has been off everyone’s radar all season.

One way to change that would be with a sixth national championship. The first step is a victory Friday.

‘‘I don’t think very many people believe we’re going to win the game,’’ Smith said. ‘‘It’s a heck of a challenge, and our guys are up for it.’’

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