Big Ten

Can Badgers, Big Ten's hottest team, make noise come March?

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Can Badgers, Big Ten's hottest team, make noise come March?

Momentum is a powerful thing, particularly when it comes to NCAA tournament success.

And though it looked at one point like this group of Badgers might not even have a chance to defend their national runner-up status in the tourney, Wisconsin — without Bo Ryan on the sideline — is currently the Big Ten's hottest team. On a six-game winning streak, the question has rapidly changed from whether the Badgers can even get on the tournament bubble to exactly how much noise they can make if invited to the Big Dance.

Consecutive victory No. 6 came Wednesday night, when Wisconsin defeated visiting Nebraska, 72-61, in Madison. The Badgers trailed by as many as six in the first half and led by just a bucket in the opening moments of the second half, but they outscored the Huskers, 42-35, over the final 20 minutes and led by as many as 17. Wisconsin shot 51.2 percent from the field and splashed home 11 3-pointers, Nigel Hayes leading the way with 20 points and Vitto Brown scoring 18 and going a perfect 3-for-3 from deep.

The Badgers sit at 7-4 in the conference, currently good for sixth in the ever-changing Big Ten standings. That's a better conference mark than Michigan State, a top-10 team, and just a half game worse than the two teams directly ahead, Purdue and Michigan.

[MORE BIG TEN: Purdue lets 18-point lead slip away but still scores huge win over Spartans]

A six-game conference winning streak — one that includes wins over Michigan State and Indiana — was believed impossible by many earlier this season, when Wisconsin was struggling to beat anybody. The season opened with a home loss to Western Illinois. Double-digit losses to Georgetown and Oklahoma followed. Then came back-to-back home losses to in-state foes Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette. Five non-conference losses, regardless of how much talent had departed from last year's national runner-up roster, was a shock to system.

Then came the biggest shock when Ryan retired midseason, handing the keys over to Greg Gard.

With Hayes and Bronson Koenig struggling to get their footing as the team's new go-to guys and the rest of the team showing its inexperience, it looked like a rare rebuilding season for a program Ryan developed into a perennial conference contender. In 14 seasons, Ryan's Badgers never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten. That streak looked very much in jeopardy when the Badgers opened league play without Ryan, losers of four of their first five conference games.

But certainly things have changed. Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten's best defensive teams, allowing an average of 64.5 points per game to conference opponents. In the last five games, Badger opponents are shooting 41.4 percent. But the offensive improvements in recent weeks have been even more noticeable. During the six-game winning streak, the Badgers have shot a combined 47.1 percent from the field. And after making no more than eight 3-pointers in a single game through the season's first 22 games, Wisconsin has hit a combined 24 3s in the last two outings.

Individually, Hayes has emerged as the production leader everyone thought he would when Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker took their talents to the NBA after last year's second straight Final Four run. Hayes has been stellar in conference play, tied with Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff for fourth in the league in conference-only scoring with 18.5 points per game. His season average is 17.3 points per game, a full point and a half per game higher than it was before this winning streak started. In the last six games, Hayes has scored 20 or more points four times — including a 31-point game against Indiana — and is averaging 21.5 points per game during the stretch.

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

While Koenig hasn't showed the same level of production, he's remained an important piece of a group that now has many more reliable role players than it seemed they had at the start of the season. Coming into the year, few aside from Hayes and Koenig had seen much of the court during the Badgers' back-to-back deep tournament runs, so it's understandable they've taken time to get used to being relied on. But Koenig, Brown, Ethan Happ and Zak Showalter have made for a fine supporting cast around Hayes. Koenig and Happ are top-30 scorers in the conference during Big Ten play, and Happ is a top-five rebounder and leads the league in steals.

So what does the rest of this season look like for the Badgers? Well, we'll find out exactly what they're made of very soon, as three tremendously difficult games remain on the regular-season schedule with road trips to Maryland, Michigan State and Iowa, all currently ranked in the top 10. The games in College Park and East Lansing are next for Wisconsin, meaning their winning streak might not be long for this world. But strong showings in those games — which have already happened in previous meetings, as the Badgers have a win over the Spartans and lost to the Terps on a buzzer-beating game-winner by Melo Trimble — would not negatively impact Wisconsin's tournament standing too much, particularly if the other three remaining regular-season games against Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota are all wins.

No Ryan. No Kaminsky. No Dekker. An 8-5 non-conference mark with three losses at home and a 1-4 start to Big Ten play. And yet, as if you could set your watch by it, here come the Badgers, piling up Big Ten wins and heading toward March with momentum.

Ryan's teams made the tournament every year he was at Wisconsin, and only twice did Wisconsin fail to get out of the Round of 64. It'll still be a fight to make the field of 68, with ESPN guru Joe Lunardi placing the Badgers in the "first four out" category in his latest bracket projection. But if Wisconsin does get an invite to the Big Dance, expect Gard's team to play like a Ryan team. Expect the Badgers to make some noise.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.