Big Ten

Tony Bennett? Gregg Marshall? Rumors fly around Illini's head-coaching search

Tony Bennett? Gregg Marshall? Rumors fly around Illini's head-coaching search

Illinois' head-coaching has only been vacant for a few days, but rumors are flying as the college-hoops coaching carousel has started spinning at a feverish pace.

Wednesday was a particualrly active day, as the vacant Missouri job was filled by Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin, someone mentioned by some observers as a potential candidate at Illinois. Martin's departure for the Tigers means a new opening with the Golden Bears. And also out in the Pac-12, Washington fired its head coach, Lorenzo Romar.

Thursday the Big Ten got its second coaching vacancy of the offseason, as Indiana ended the nine-year tenure of Tom Crean.

Where does that leave the Illini?

Well, for one, they won't be hiring Martin. The Tribune's Shannon Ryan reported that Illinois was interested in making Martin an offer, but he opted to go helm Braggin' Rights rival Mizzou.

Ryan's report also included two of the bigger names involved in the Illinois rumor mill: Wichita State's Gregg Marshall and Virginia's Tony Bennett. Ryan reported that the Illini are pursuing those two, with North Carolina-Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts as a backup option.

Marshall is in his 10th season at Wichita State, a mighty successful run in the Missouri Valley Conference that has seen him take the Shockers to six straight NCAA tournaments, including a phenomenal run to the 2013 Final Four. Prior to that, he spent nine seasons at Winthrop, taking the Eagles to the NCAA tournament in seven of those seasons.

Bennett knows the Big Ten well, a former assistant under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin from 1999 to 2003. He spent three seasons as the head coach at Washington State, a tenure that included a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2008, before heading to Virginia, where he's taken the Cavaliers to five NCAA tournaments in eight seasons, including each of the last four. Last season, Virginia earned a No. 1 seed and advanced to the Elite Eight.

Bennett, much like Ryan, is well known for his team's defensive prowess. Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense this season, allowing an average of 55.6 points per game, and has ranked in the top five in the country in scoring defense in each of the past six seasons.

Keatts has won three staright conference championships at UNC-Wilmington and taken the Seahawks to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. Prior to his current job, Keatts was an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville.

Interestingly enough, Bennett and Keatts coached against one another Thursday in a first-round NCAA tournament game.

All this comes five days after Illinois fired John Groce and five days after a report that San Antonio Spurs executive and former NBA head coach Monty Williams turned down a lucrative offer to be the next Illini coach.

As Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman has shown in the past with his hiring of head football coach Lovie Smith, he's not afraid to make a big splash to rapidly change the perception of a high-profile program. He's also not been afraid to commit big-time financial resources, something the school, as a member of the Big Ten, has a lot of.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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USA TODAY

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.