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 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?