NCAA Talk

Fitzgerald, Northwestern get bowl monkey off their backs

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Fitzgerald, Northwestern get bowl monkey off their backs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The best news coming out of Northwestern's 34-20 win over Mississippi State in Tuesday's Gator Bowl, was that the monkey has been destroyed.

It came a year later than had been planned, but the monkey is officially history.

Don't be alarmed PETA members, the monkey is not real.

It's the fictitious animal that has been logged on the shoulders of Northwestern football teams participating in bowl games each of the last five seasons and for years before that. Northwestern won the 1949 Rose Bowl Game against California and the Wildcats haven't claimed victory in a postseason game since.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thought he could put an end to the Wildcats' lengthy bowl losing streak a year ago when Northwestern met Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston. The stuffed monkey made the trip to Houston but earned a ride home with the Cats when they dropped a 33-22 decision to the Aggies.

Fast forward to Jacksonville and the Gator Bowl where Northwestern was trying to end its nine-game bowl losing streak, a dubious mark that they shared with Notre Dame as the longest losing streak ever in bowl history. Once again, Fitzgerald made certain "Mr. Monkey" was part of the team's traveling party to Florida.

"I gave it to Curtis, Curtis Shaner, long time equipment manager before we left. And I said 'put it in the case and put it away,'" an elated Fitzgerald said at the press conference after Tuesday's game. "After we win, we're going to tear it up and never go back there. I think they said on the podium in the postgame ceremonies on the field after the game, we've never been here before. But now we're here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion."

So the monkey has made its last trip with Northwestern. Fitzgerald made it clear, in a laughing manner, that the Wildcats took turns shredding the stuffed animal in the locker room afterwards. He brought the mangled mess to the press conference -- or at least what was left of it -- for all to see.

Afterwards, Northwestern players talked about the relief of not having to discuss about the losing streak any more and what a great sendoff the victory was for the senior class, the winningest group of seniors ever to play at Northwestern.

"I'm so glad that monkey is off our back and that we're the group that did it," said starting right guard Brian Mulroe, a fifth-year senior and a four-time loser in bowl games prior to Tuesday. "We're the seniors who helped end the streak. The sky's the limit for these young guys. We deserve this after what we've put into the program this year. All our hard work has paid off."

Starting quarterback Kain Colter had similar thoughts. Colter did what he could to bring about a win by leading the Wildcats in rushing with 71 yards in 11 carries (6.5 avg.) and added another 76 yards in the air on 9-of-16 passing.

"This means so much to the program. This win's for the seniors," said Colter, a junior. "I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders."

Fitzgerald may be the most relieved person that the monkey and losing streak are a thing of the past. From his opening press conference on the first day in Jacksonville up until his final media briefing the day before the game, Fitzgerald was asked about the bowl misfortunes in various ways. Some were subtle, some were indirect, some were pointed. But all wanted to know why the losing streak had extended to nine games in a row, including each of the last four years.

Each time, Fitzgerald calmly, patiently and in a positive manner, explained how the Cats have been close, how they've played well for a half or three quarters, but had yet to turn in a full four quarters of solid play.

That's why there may have been some nervous Northwestern fans at EverBank Field on Tuesday, watching their team build a 27-13 lead after three quarters. Would this be the fourth game this year that the Wildcats had led by double figures in the second half, only to see the lead evaporate and end up in a loss? It happened against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, the Cat's three losses in a 9-3 regular season.

When Mississippi State scored four minutes into the final quarter to make it a 7-point game, the collars became a little tighter for those wearing purple.

But on Mississippi State's next possession, quarterback Russell Tyler underthrew an intended receiver by 10 yards and Nick VanHoose was there to make the interception. The redshirt freshman cornerback not only made the pick - the fourth of the game by the Cats' defense - but he returned it 39 yards to the 10-yard line.

A penalty moved it to the 5 and while it took three plays from there, Venric Mark's burst off left tackle from three yards out resulted in a score to make it a more comfortable 14-point margin.

Mississippi State never threatened again, failing to get past its own 30 yard line in its final two possessions. And once Northwestern ran out the clock from inside the Bulldogs' 10-yard line the final 1:42, the celebration began.

Fitzgerald was doused with blue Gatorade and immediately jumped into the arms of 300-pound defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, the culprit behind the coach's soaking. Players paraded near the stands, extending and receiving congratulatory high-fives from joyous Northwestern fans. Fitzgerald later took control of a field microphone, thanked the fans for their support and joined the team and supporters in singing the school fight song.

Afterwards, pictures were taken of any combination of players and coaches, whether it be by class, unit or just friends. Everyone wanted the trophy included in their picture, but no one wanted the monkey to be a part of the celebration. His demise was eminent and with it, NU's bowl game blues.

"Every time I think about what just happened on this field, I start to tear up a little bit," said Quentin Williams who started the Northwestern scoring when he returned an interception 29 yards to the end zone on the third play of the game. "This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We've worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off today. I've been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing.

"I can just imagine how everyone feels back home and how they're celebrating. This win is for anyone who's ever strapped on the Purple and White at least once in their life. Without doubt, the best feeling I've had in my five years at Northwestern. We're doing some good things around here and it's going to take us places."

And no monkey will be accompanying the team on these journeys.

Say it ain't so: DePaul commit Tyger Campbell reopens recruitment

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AP

Say it ain't so: DePaul commit Tyger Campbell reopens recruitment

It looks like it was too good to be true.

Tyger Campbell shocked the recruiting world when he committed to DePaul on May 8.

Less than four months later, Campbell has reopened his recruitment.

The Rivals.com four-star point guard out of La Lumiere High School in Indiana, who is the No. 66 prospect in the 2018 Class, took to Twitter Friday night to explain his decision.

One of Campbell's original draws to the Blue Demons was DePaul hiring Shane Heirman as an assistant coach. Heirman coached Campbell for two seasons at La Lumiere.

"I like DePaul and honestly my coach (Shane Heirman) just went there and we have a great connection and he's always had my back," Campbell told Scout.com when he committed to the Blue Demons. "I like [DePaul] coach Dave Leitao, too. I like his program and he's an intelligent guy."

Campbell currently has offers from a handful of D1 schools, including Illinois, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Purdue, SMU, Memphis and Tennessee.

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

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USA TODAY

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

On the heels of a 12-win improvement, UIC basketball is riding confidently into the new season. 

And why shouldn't they be? Head coach Steve McClain returns a young, talented nucleus that's expected to challenge for a Horizon League championship and NCAA Tournament berth. 

In fact, the program is in such good shape that they thought: Let's play Kentucky. 

Yup, that's right. The UIC Flames will match up with the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Nov. 26, a necessary stage in development, according to McClain. 

“Every year you build your program, there’s steps you have to take," McClain said. "When we got the opportunity to go to Kentucky, I think that’s the next level of exposure for our program.

"When you're chasing trying to be great, you gotta show your kids and show people what greatness looks like. I don't think anyone can argue what Kentucky has done, so I want to put our kids in that environment so they see what it is." 

The contrast between programs is severe. UIC hasn't made an NCAA Tournament since 2004. The Wildcats have made 11 since then. UIC has never advanced out of the first round at the Big Dance. Kentucky has eight National Championships. 

Even this upcoming season, as the Flames boast one of their most skilled teams in school history, none of them were ever touted like Kentucky's freshman class, which ranks No. 2 in the nation per ESPN. 

But the disparities in past successes don't seem to bother UIC. Instead, players, who were likely snubbed by bigger schools in recruitment, are excited about the opportunity to compete on a national stage that the Flames rarely see. 

“First I was like, ‘It’s about time we got someone like (Kentucky) on our schedule,’" said center Tai Odiase, one of the few seniors on the roster. "We’ve been trying to play bigger teams to showcase what we’re made of."

“I don’t see why you go into a place like that without a chip on your shoulder. You don’t go in there just to play basketball, we’re trying to win."

UIC will be heavy, heavy underdogs. There's no way around that. But there are certain spots where they may not be at such a disadvantage. 

On the defensive end, Odiase continued to terrorize guards and big men alike, finishing fifth in the NCAA with 2.9 blocks per game. The dynamic guard duo from "The Six," Godwin Boahen and Marcus Ottey, are quick enough to hang and both took a huge step down the stretch last season. Then there's the return of 2015-2016 Horizon League Newcomer of the Year Dikembe Dixson, who is recovering from a torn ACL.

"The doctors at times thought he was a freak of nature because he was back as quick as he was," McClain said.  

Still, it's a tune-up game for Kentucky, who also scheduled Kansas, UCLA and Louisville on their non-conference slate. But one team's expected walk through is another team's vital experience. 

"Our guys can walk in and see that on a given night, you can compete with anyone," McClain said. 

Given new athletic director Garrett Klassy's comments at his introductory press conference, it doesn't seem as if games like this are a one-hit wonder for UIC. 

“I am an aggressive scheduler," Klassy said. "I helped with the scheduling at George Washington. We’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere.

"You want to measure yourself against the best. We have a lot of returning starters. It’ll be nice to go on the road, play a tough game and maybe sneak out an upset."