Big Ten

Big Ten Tournament Day 4 preview: Can Northwestern reach championship game?

Big Ten Tournament Day 4 preview: Can Northwestern reach championship game?

WASHINGTON — The Big Ten Tournament marches on in the nation's capital Saturday with the two semifinal games. Here's a look at the action to come in D.C. Listed start times are Central.

No. 4 Minnesota vs. No. 8 Michigan

12 p.m., CBS

This matchup might seem a little funky, but it might not have been terribly difficult to predict considering the way these two teams were playing to close out the regular season. Minnesota has been one of the best teams in the world since the start of February, rattling off eight straight wins before stumbling the regular-season finale against Wisconsin. But the Golden Gophers got back on track with a win over Michigan State on Friday. Richard Pitino's team didn't play out of this world — it probably should've smoked Tom Izzo's group, which shot horribly — but it got the win it needed to get back on track and has now won nine of 10. Michigan, of course, is the feel-good story of this week's tournament, winning twice in two days after enduring that horrifying aborted takeoff on Wednesday. And the Wolverines have looked incredible in winning the games they've won, blowing out Illinois before grabbing a huge win over top-seeded Purdue on Friday.

While both teams have stellar point guards in Nate Mason and Derrick Walton Jr., the bigs could determine this one. Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson have taken turns starring for Michigan with an ability to score inside and out. Meanwhile, Reggie Lynch is the newly minted Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and backed it up with five blocks Friday. Jordan Murphy ain't no slouch, either, turning in a double-double against the Spartans.

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No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Northwestern

2:30 p.m., CBS

It's a rematch of a Feb. 12 game in which Northwestern went up to Madison and grabbed a landmark, NCAA tournament resume-building victory. That was just the Badgers' second loss since Thanksgiving at the time, but it started a losing stretch of five defeats in six games. For the Wildcats it was an anomaly during a 2-5 stretch. Northwestern played near-perfect defense in that game and turned the remainder of Ethan Happ's season into an inconsistent roller coaster by double-teaming him at every opportunity and sending him to the bench the majority of the second half he was so ineffective.

Wisconsin is playing better now, the winner of back-to-back games including Friday's tournament win over Indiana in which it flexed its league-best defense. It'll need to flex it again as Northwestern's offense has been sensational in two games in Washington, shooting 60 percent against Rutgers and 55.3 percent against Maryland. Scottie Lindsey — who didn't play in that game up in Madison — and Vic Law have found their grooves after searching for their shot down the stretch of the regular season, combining for 66 points in the two wins. But the Badgers can shoot, too, anf they buried 10 triples in Friday's win.

The Cats will likely be the sentimental favorites, on the verge of their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance with a chance at more program history this week in D.C. But the Badgers are the No. 2 seed for a reason.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.


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