Big Ten

Big Ten hoops preview: With stars healthy, Michigan has depth, high hopes

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Big Ten hoops preview: With stars healthy, Michigan has depth, high hopes

Michigan’s 2014-15 season came to a screeching end when Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton went down with season-ending injuries.

But while those crushing injuries to arguably the team’s two best players ended one season, they gave the Wolverines a jump on another.

The sidelining of LeVert and Walton allowed other players, younger players to get playing time they weren’t originally slated to receive. And while 2014-15 ended with losses in nine of the team’s last 13 games — the bottoming-out finish to a 16-16 record and 8-10 conference mark — it also ended with guys like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman establishing themselves as valuable pieces to the 2015-16 puzzle.

“It is painful to go through that. It is painful for (the players) as well. We had a lot of close losses, and right now you can see the effect has been terrific,” head coach John Beilein said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “We have a lot of gap to make up with this young team. But without question, now that we look back on it, it was very beneficial for all of us, including the coaching staff.”

“At first I was heartbroken because of the injury, but then I kind of looked at it from a bigger scale and really saw what Muhammad and Aubrey were doing out on the court as far as the confidence they had. They really grew,” LeVert said. “You saw them out there making big plays on the road against Michigan State, at home against Wisconsin, in big games like that. And I think that will really help us this year down the stretch.”

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LeVert is an All-Big Ten type player, an All-America type player, some would say. When he went down for the season after six Big Ten games, he was averaging nearly 15 points and five rebounds a game, shooting better than 42 percent from the field and better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line.

His loss last season marked the end for Michigan. His return this year will mark the start of what could be another special campaign for a Beilein-led team, as LeVert said he’s feeling better than he did even before he went down.

“It was definitely tough at first, watching my team go out there and fight, knowing that I really couldn’t do anything physically to help them,” LeVert said. “But a couple weeks after the injury, my teammates were really there for me, coaches were there for me, and I knew that I could help the team out in other ways, encouraging guys and things like that. So I definitely think it was a learning experience for me.

“I would say I feel better than I did before the injury just as far as my leg strength and my durability. I’m able to play for longer stretches of time.”

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Having a healthy LeVert back in action is obviously huge for the Wolverines. Same goes for Walton. And Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht, two more Michigan guards who had offseason procedures to get themselves all patched up for this season.

But equally important are the guys who filled in for the injured stars. Eight players started at least 13 games for the Wolverines last season. Nine averaged at least 15 minutes a game. That might not be the case this season, but to bring back that kind of experience and depth is huge.

“You never want to see guys go down, and last year having Caris and Derrick go down, that obviously didn’t help us. But it did allow for other guys to step up and get a chance to play, get some game experience,” Albrecht said. “There’s nothing like game experience. Guys like Aubrey and Muhammad got to play in big games, crucial moments. Now when they get in there this season, there’s no pressure, they’re not worried because they’ve been there before.”

It could very well create a headache for Beilein, who has to figure out how to distribute the minutes between the returning stars and the now-experienced backups.

“We have to get these young men that will probably have to move back in their minutes and still get comfortable with a five-, 10-, 15-, 20-minute slot, and some of those same young men might be in the 30-, 35-minute slot,” Beilein said. “So we're going to determine that out, and it is great to have depth. And it gives you all kinds of choices. Sometimes that’s tough too. … You still don't have all the answers. You try to evolve during the season as well.”

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The recipe might not be finalized quite yet, but the ingredients make it seem like the Wolverines can again challenge for a Big Ten title, even in a league as crowded at the top as this one appears to be. Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue. They’re all great teams. But Michigan is right there with them. LeVert, Walton and Irvin make up a terrific scoring trio, while on off nights, we now know guys like Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman can supply what’s missing.

It’s only been three seasons since Michigan finished as national runner up. It’s only been two since a miracle shot by Kentucky prevented Michigan from reaching back-to-back Final Fours.

Last season was wiped out by injuries, but this season looks like it will more closely resemble the two that ended as one of the final teams standing in the NCAA tournament.

At least, that’s what these guys think.

“We have very high expectations. We want to get back to where we were in years past,” Albrecht said. “Last year we kind of dipped down, had some injuries, things like that. But we’ve put in a lot of work this offseason, and we’re excited about the upcoming season.”

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?