The University of Michigan began its men's basketball season at the Crisler Center on Nov. 1. The 83-47 exhibition win against Northern Michigan showcased three fantastic freshmen, all from Northwest Indiana.
But unlike the decades of dominance in the past, these three players were not from East Chicago, Gary or Hammond.
Crown Point's Spike Albrecht, Lake Central's Glenn Robinson III and Chesterton's Mitch McGary were all stars from the Duneland Athletic Conference.
The league once known for football is now one of the state's top boys basketball conferences.
Last winter, Lake Central finished 13-1 in the DAC and won the school's first DAC championship. The Indians had at least four Division I players in their lineup.
“I am awfully proud of what our guys did last year,” Indians coach Dave Milausnic said. “We had a well-rounded team, good athletes and good basketball players. They played together.
"It's going to take the same kind of effort by someone to win the DAC this year.”
This is the final year of the double-round robin scheduling of the DAC, which was introduced for the 2003-04 season. The impending change means conference teams will have more opportunities for exposure against top talent outside the area.
In 2007, Valparaiso, with Scott Martin and Robbie Hummel, lost in the regional championship to E.C. Central. The Cardinals, who do not belong to a conference, had traveled across Indiana and into Illinois to face tough competition that could prepare them for the postseason. The Vikings, meanwhile, were locked into games against less talented opponents they easily beat.
Last season, Milausnic was handcuffed trying to get Robinson on some bigger stages. He got one game with Hamilton-Southeastern, but that was it in Indiana. It's difficult to get a Mr. Basketball candidate the votes needed when playing 14 games against the same seven teams.
“Oh, the last year of the double-round robin, let's savor it while it's still here,” Valparaiso coach Joe Otis said with a smirk.
Otis said Lake Central is still the team to beat, even without Robinson. The team is as talent heavy as any in the league.
"Tyler Wideman is a marquee player," Otis said, "and he's as big as a marquee."
Wideman, a 6-foot-6 junior, is being recruited by Purdue, Xavier, Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee and Iowa. Tye Wilburn, a junior point guard, is being recruited by Valpo, IPFW, Indiana State, DePaul, Central Michigan and Detroit Mercy.
Mike Miklusak, a 6-foot-6 senior, has offers from Texas Pan-American and Chicago State.
A decade ago the league was lucky to get one D-I player a season.
“Last year was crazy,” Miklusak said. “Playing with a guy in the Big Ten (Robinson), Tyler and Tye are probably going to the Big Ten. Playing with those guys made me get better. Knowing it was Lake Central's first DAC title meant a lot."
The Indians have one advantage: they don't play in the DAC sectional. It's not that playing Munster, E.C. Central, or West Side is a breeze, but the Indians will not have to play a team for a third time like all the other league teams.
Crown Point coach Clint Swan is excited about the size and youth on his Bulldogs' team. Senior Tommy Bardeson, a 6-foot-5 guard, is being recruited by Northwestern.
Bret Barclay, a 6-foot-6 junior, is being recruited by Loyola, New Hampshire and Eastern Kentucky. Sophomores Nick Jeffirs (6-5), Rade Kukobat (6-8) and Noah Burkholder (6-6) are all on the D-I radar.
Crown Point struggled early before winning seven games in a row heading into the sectional, where back-to-back losses to Chesterton ended the dream.
“This is a bad year to be bad in the DAC,” Swan said. “There are no nights off. None at all. There is talent all over this league. I've never seen anything like it before. Depth will be key. This is a tough league to win with just five guys.”
Like C.P., Chesterton is very young and loaded with individual skill. Albrecht inspired many youngsters in his hometown, just like Zack Novac and McGary did for those younger Trojans.
Sophomore Matt Holba, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, has an offer from Valpo, but was also invited to the Michigan Elite Camp. Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State are also recruiting him.
Chris Palombizio, another Chesterton sophomore, was also invited to Michigan's Elite Camp. Nebraska and South Dakota State are heavily recruiting him. And Cole Teal, a junior guard, is on South Dakota State's radar.
To show how far the league has come, when Novac was a senior, he had no suitors. Then, he blew up at the college level.
“Novak inspired some young kids,” Chesterton coach Tom Peller said. “How a white, 6-foot-3 average athlete could do what he did was amazing. He became a star with grit, heart and a lot of desire. You always go through cycles with good players and some that aren't so good.
“This is as good as I've seen in the DAC.”
Holba has been shocked by all these television coaches knowing his name.
“I have so much left in high school and I'm thinking about college already,” Holba said. “It's crazy. We're so young. The conference is going to be very good. Every team has one, two or three players being recruited by D-I programs.
“I think it's going to make every DAC game unbelievable.”
Valparaiso is the one school that doesn't have D-I telescopes looking at its practices. Yet the Vikings are one of the scariest teams in Northwest Indiana. Otis' system will make them a tough out either in November or March.
Last season Valpo was 12-9, but took eventual sectional champion Merrillville down to the wire before losing 44-43.
“If you don't bring your A game, you could end up .500,” Otis said. “The talent has changed some but the rest of the game hasn't. It will come down to taking care of the basketball, hitting free throws and hitting a couple of 3-pointers.
“There are going to be a lot of games where both teams will have a chance to win in the fourth quarter.”
Senior John Mosser has several NAIA schools recruiting him, but he understands his team is different than some of the others in the DAC.
That doesn't bother him, or his teammates, at all.
“The star power is not here,” Mosser said. “We play really well as a team. We've all been playing together since the fourth grade. We're going to have to do it together.”
Michigan City coach John Boyd has two highly recruited players. Guard Ryan Taylor is about to be offered by Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, and UIC is also interested. Oregon State, Purdue and Loyola are interested in Taylor, but want him to go to a prep school first.
Anthony Simmons is being recruited by Ball State, Georgia State, IPFW, UIC, Bowling Green and Lehigh.
Boyd believes the DAC has all this talent because of the coaching.
“Good players want to play for good coaches in communities who have great facilities and who take the idea of a student-athlete to the highest level," Boyd said.
Boyd took West Side to the state championship in 2002. Merrillville's T.J. Lux played for the Pirates in the 1995 state championship game. Swan took Andrean to the Class 3A state championship in 2000. Otis took LaPorte to the final Final Four in 1997.
“That's what I'm saying; there are a lot of great coaches in the DAC,” Boyd said. “That makes it very tough every time you play a game.”
Since Boyd arrived in Michigan City, the Wolves have not had that breakout season yet. But last winter Boyd's team was the only one to beat Lake Central. Now they are knocking on the door, again.
“We have to keep playing tough,” Simmons said. “We have to stay tough and have faith in each other. We need to make our free throws and execute. If we do that, we have a chance.”
Merrillville is the lone team with a lot of seniors. The problem for the Pirates is the success of the football team. The Bucs travel to Fort Wayne Snider tonight for the Class 5A semistate.
With a win, the basketball team hibernates for another week.
“It's all football right now,” Merrillville guard B.J. Jenkins said. “I'm not worried about basketball until it's here.”
The Pirates do have one D-I basketball player, Jake Raspopovich, who will play for Texas Pan-American. Zoran Talley is also being recruited by TPA. Jenkins has Chicago State watching him and freshman Demond Wilkins has Indiana and Purdue on his tracks.
Merrillville has always led the league in D-I recruits. Everyone else is catching up.
“It's pretty amazing how good the teams can be,” Lux said. “Every team has multiple guys who can beat you. Not guys who can hurt you. Guys who can beat you.
“It's just the right time. Every community is doing a good job of developing basketball players at the lower levels. Everyone has it going.”