Big Ten

Alone in first place, Hawkeyes firing on all cylinders

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Alone in first place, Hawkeyes firing on all cylinders

The Iowa Caucuses are a week old, ancient history in the world of 24-hour news. But just because the political world has picked up and left doesn't mean the college basketball world's focus has departed from the Hawkeye State.

Iowa is expected to climb even higher from its No. 5 ranking when the new AP poll comes out Monday afternoon, a mighty deserving jump considering everything is going right for the Hawkeyes right now.

At 19-4 overall and 10-1 in the conference after defeating Illinois, 77-65, on Sunday in Champaign, Iowa is alone atop the Big Ten standings thanks to Indiana's tie-breaking loss at Penn State on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes boast a fantastic resume for tournament time with seasons sweeps of Michigan State and Purdue and their lone conference loss coming on the road at fellow top-10 team Maryland. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Iowa's only defeats came against Big 12 contender Iowa State, perennial tournament team Dayton and Notre Dame, which just Saturday upset No. 2 North Carolina.

So how are they doing it? How have the Hawkeyes, who were expected to be good but not this good, turned into the Big Ten's clear-cut No. 1 team and a team that seems to have as good a chance to win a national title as any?

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes dominate glass in cruising past Illini]

Many point, and rightfully so, to Iowa's veteran-heavy starting five. Four Hawkeye starters are seniors: Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons. The other, Peter Jok, is a junior. That experience of playing through every imaginable situation, as head coach Fran McCaffery explained Sunday, certainly gives his team a leg up.

"Our senior group — it's one thing to say you're a senior, but they're seniors who have started, who have played, who have made mistakes, who have had great games," McCaffery said. "They've won on the road, they've lost on the road, they've come back, they've lost leads. There's nothing that they haven't seen. And so I think what happens is, when you're in a situation like this, an environment like this and they make a run at you, there's no panic and that's what happens when you have experience."

But apart from just age, the Hawkeyes are blowing the doors off their opponents. Only run-and-gun Indiana is averaging more points per game among Big Ten teams than Iowa's 80.7. The Hawkeyes are outscoring teams by an average of 13.3 points per game, with all but one of their conference wins coming by double digits. But taking care of the ball is their strongest suit, leading the conference in turnover margin (plus-3.4 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7). They rank 13th and third in the country in those respective categories.

And experience is all well and good, but you have to play well, too. Iowa has done that, with almost every key player not just playing well but playing terrifically.

Uthoff has looked like the clubhouse leader for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, ranking third in the league in scoring with 18.4 points per game and leading the Big Ten with 2.9 blocks per game and 67 swats on the season. That's in a conference with multiple seven-foot centers. He also ranks in the top 10 in rebounding, 3-point field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. Sunday, he made his presence felt with 18 points and 12 rebounds for just his second double-double of the season. Versatility, thy name is Uthoff.

[MORE BIG TEN: With big men hurt, Illini are one of Big Ten's worst rebounding teams]

Woodbury is one of the Big Ten's top rebounders, averaging 7.7 rebounds per game. His numbers are more impressive on the offensive end, where he averages 2.57 offensive rebounds per game. Both those marks put him in the top 140 in the country. Offensive rebounding was the difference in Sunday's win, with the Hawkeyes turning 12 offensive rebounds into 26 second-chance points. Woodbury recorded his sixth double-double of the season (and fourth in his last five games) with 10 points and 14 rebounds.

"Adam has really established himself, I think, as a premier rebounder in this country," McCaffery said. "It makes such a difference to your defense when you only give them one shot, and he gets it. But he's also got five offensive rebounds (in Sunday's game) and gave us a couple extra opportunities, especially late."

Jok has perhaps been the biggest revelation for this Iowa team, evolving this season into a player capable of not just complementing Uthoff but being the team's primary scorer on any given night. He ranks 11th in the Big Ten with 15.5 points per game. He's also one of the league's top 3-point shooters and free-throw shooters, and he ranks fourth in the conference in steals. Jok is averaging 17.6 points per game in Big Ten play, and he's posted seven 20-point scoring performances this season, Sunday being the latest when he led the way for Iowa with 23 points.

"He's playing with a tremendous amount of confidence, obviously, you can see that," McCaffery said. "He's going to keep firing, and I want him to keep firing. But I think you're seeing a much more complete player. Defensively, you can see the steal he made midway through the second half, which was at the time a momentum shift, gave us another basket. And I just think you're watching a guy who when he was young was a guy who made some mistakes, and he's not doing that anymore. So he's making shots, he's playing defense, his stamina has improved and he's not making mistakes. Really proud of him."

[MORE BIG TEN: Future Illini point guard Te'Jon Lucas has fractured foot]

Then there's that experience coming into play again with Gesell and Clemmons, a pair of senior guards who McCaffery lauded for their ability to know the situation and control the game. They can also play defense and put the ball in the basket, adding even more to this high-flying group.

"Not only do we have an experienced backcourt, we have two senior point guards on the floor at the same time," McCaffery said. "So the decision-making and the passing and their ability to run an efficient offense without turning the ball over, recognizing time and score, who's on a run — can we go quick, can we move it, can we go side to side, does Malcolm Hill have four fouls, can we get it to Jarrod and put some pressure on him? Those guys just understand that kind of stuff."

How far can the Hawkeyes go? Well, while college basketball this season has been a Home Alone-style house of booby traps for top-ranked teams, certainly Iowa is looking to be one of the nation's best. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Hawkeyes as a No. 1 seed in his latest bracket projections, he has for a couple weeks now. And though there are a few weeks of the regular season still to be played, there don't appear to be more than two teams (Maryland and Michigan State; sorry Indiana, shouldn't have lost to Penn State) that would be considered threats to Iowa's favorite status heading into the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

How far can the Hawkeyes go? The coach they beat Sunday seems to think that with their experience and their expertise in playing alongside one another they can beat anyone.

"They're a very good team," Illinois head coach John Groce said. "They've got very good players, but they're a very good team that's had great continuity and stability and health. I think as long as that stays true for them — teams win games, they do. And I think they're good enough, they've got a chance to beat anybody. They defend, they play offense, they've got multiple weapons, they don't beat themselves.

"You can tell those guys have played together for a long time. It's been neat to watch, I told one of their seniors after the game, watching them. Their evolution has basically been during my tenure here, when they were younger and now they're older. And they appear to have honored the process, and they play the right way. I've got a lot of respect for their team. I think they've got a really good basketball team."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?