Big Ten

Holy meow! Northwestern makes first NCAA tournament in program history

Holy meow! Northwestern makes first NCAA tournament in program history

For the first time ever, Northwestern is going dancing.

This special season reached its most important milestone on Selection Sunday, when the Wildcats were announced as part of the NCAA tournament field for the first time in program history.

The packed house at Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted when Northwestern was announced as the No. 8 seed in the West Region. The Cats will take on No. 9 seed Vanderbilt on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

It's been a long time coming for the school that played host to the first-ever NCAA tournament back in 1939. The Cats weren't a part of that year's field, nor were they part of any field for the next 78 years.

But the day has finally come, even though we've known it was coming for a while now — wins at Wisconsin and then at home against Michigan seemed to seal the deal on two separate occasions. This has been an incredible season at Northwestern, and these Cats have already accomplished so many program firsts. They won 10 games during Big Ten play for the first time, and just this week in Washington, D.C., they advanced to their first Big Ten Tournament semifinal. They have won a program-record 23 games, a number that could get even bigger in the NCAA tournament.

Surely, though, no program first is bigger than this invitation to the Big Dance.

Head coach Chris Collins has done a remarkable job in his four years helming the program. The longtime Duke assistant personality, experience at one of college basketball's best programs and lineage — he's the son of former Bulls head coach Doug Collins — brought immediate excitement to a program that rarely experienced that emotion. He started his tenure with unprecedented recruiting success, bringing in some of the highest-rated recruits the program had ever seen.

In his first season, Collins led the Cats to eye-opening road wins at Indiana and Wisconsin, the latter boasting a team that made that season's Final Four. In his second season, the Cats won five of their last seven regular-season games and broke in star freshmen Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey. Last season, the Cats went 12-1 in non-conference play, the lone loss to a North Carolina team that ended up in the national championship game. You could see Collins building his program.

This season featured notable non-conference wins over Texas and Dayton, as well as some of those "quality" losses that always show up on NCAA tournament resumes to the likes of Notre Dame and Butler. Northwestern went on an impressive six-game winning streak during conference play that appeared the inverse of the long Big Ten losing streaks Collins' teams went through in his first few seasons in Evanston.

A bad stretch did strike. Lindsey came down with a case of mono, throwing a wrench into the Cats' flow, particularly on the offensive end. Northwestern lost five of seven, but one of the two wins came on the road against a ranked Wisconsin team, a monumental victory that seemed to punch the team's ticket to the tournament. As a few losses continued to pile up, plenty worried the Cats might've been floating to the wrong side of that tournament bubble. But a win against Michigan that ended in a court-length pass from Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon for a buzzer-beating basket — a play similar to the famed Grant Hill heave to Christian Laettner in the 1992 NCAA tournament — erased any doubts and signaled this would be the year.

You could tell Northwestern arrived when CBS showed up for the regular-season finale against Purdue and put a rollicking Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd on national TV, with play-by-play man Jim Nantz calling it one of the best atmospheres he's seen in his illustrious career. The Cats might have even boosted their tournament seed with back-to-back wins in this week's Big Ten Tournament, including a Friday-night victory over Maryland in front of a raucous pro-Terps crowd at the Verizon Center.

McIntosh and Lindsey earned All-Big Ten honors this season, and Law was named to the conference's all-defensive team. Pardon figures to get those kinds of accolades soon.

It's been a mighty long wait for fans of Chicago's Big Ten Team. But this is a drought-busting year in the Windy City, right, Cubs fans?

For those who thought they'd never see it, believe it. The Cats are going dancing.

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.