Big Ten

Illini finally over .500, but rocky start to season continues

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Illini finally over .500, but rocky start to season continues

For the first time this season, the Illini are over .500, which as you might imagine is not something to be overly excited about.

At 6-5, Illinois is off to one of the worse starts in recent memory, stumbling through its non-conference schedule toward an always grueling Big Ten gauntlet.

Even in the win that took their record into positive territory, the Illini were anything but a force. Up against a UIC team that has just one win this season, the Illini allowed the Flames to grab an early lead, erase a double-digit halftime deficit, go ahead in the second half and hang around till the game’s final buzzer. Illinois won the game by an 83-79 score, but UIC made them gut it out, going on a 14-0 run in the middle of the second half, shooting 55.6 percent from the field in the second half and hitting nine 3-pointers on the game.

The result was a positive Saturday, as was the way the Illini prevented a 14-0 run that erased their lead from becoming something even more. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot this team needs to improve on if it’s going to compete with Big Ten opponents and prevent the program’s NCAA tournament drought from reaching three years.

“At the end of the day, I’m pleased with the way they really manned up there late once we got down one. At the same time, we’ll look at the things we need to get better at,” head coach John Groce said. “They kind of laughed at me in the locker room, but my friend John Gordon said, ‘Winning can sometimes be a deodorant. It can hide maybe what you stunk at. It can hide that.’ So we don’t want to use that, we want to find the things we need to get better at.

“These guys will tell you, we’re always real with them, we’ll address them and we’ll continue to get better. I do think we’re getting better, and I really like our group. So I’m excited to see where we can go here this next week and how much we can improve.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini sweat out win over UIC to move above .500]

There’s no doubting the last few months have been an excruciating exercise for Groce and his team. Injuries have been the dominating storyline, with plenty of them occurring in the preseason. Tracy Abrams’ torn Achilles wiped out his senior season for the second straight year. Jalen Coleman-Lands battled through a stress fracture in his leg. Leron Black had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Kendrick Nunn suffered a torn ligament in his thumb.

And it didn’t stop once the season started, either. Jaylon Tate dislocated his finger in an early game. Mike Thorne could miss the entire season after having surgery to remove his meniscus. Black has had soreness and sat out a few games as he tries to move back toward full strength.

“It’s been a little bit crazy. One thing I’ll tell you is they’re very odd ones. They have absolutely nothing to do with training,” Groce said. “I think part of it’s been some bad luck and some real quirky injuries. They’re not the typical basketball injuries, some of these things we’re having. But for whatever reason, we’ve been dealt these things, got to handle them the right way, continue to get guys healthy, continue to try to play the game the right way.”

Injuries have been crippling, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s forced the Illini to try to figure things out on the fly. Saturday marked the first time this season Illinois has had the same starting five in back-to-back games. Without their starting big men in Thorne and Black, the Illini are struggling with a huge question mark in their frontcourt, a question they haven’t had time to answer and are working on during games.

A lot of young guys have been thrown into the fire, Coleman-Lands and fellow freshman Michael Finke playing big minutes and playing time increasing for another freshman in Aaron Jordan.

“It’s led to more opportunities for a guy like Jalen Coleman-Lands or Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams or Michael Finke as freshmen. Those are four freshmen that I think are going to be really good, and they’re doing some good things now, we just need them to be a little bit more consistent,” Groce said. “Well what’s going to happen is they’re going to get that consistency because they’re improvement’s going to be accelerated because they’re counted on a little bit more right now. So that’s a good thing for not only this year but for our program.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

The cause has been uncertainty with an unbelievable amount of injuries. But the effect has been a real struggle to start the season. Illinois has narrowly escaped North Dakota State, Chicago State and Yale. It can count North Florida and Chattanooga among its losses, in addition to more understandable defeats against the more marquee opponents on the non-conference slate: Iowa State, Notre Dame and Providence.

But is this a storm to weather, or this is more a preview of how the rest of the season will play out? Certainly this Illini team could figure things out and start playing much better basketball. Past Illinois teams have done just that. But there’s the other side of that coin, too, where the Illini can’t figure it our, are too damaged by these injuries and get routinely pounded by teams like Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue, teams that will take far more advantage of mistakes than UIC, Chicago State, North Dakota State and Yale.

Groce talked about making lemonade out of the high number of lemons his team’s been handed so far this season, and he likes the direction things are heading. But if that lemonade doesn’t translate into some more wins and the Illini miss the Big Dance for the third straight season, then what?

“Considering everything that we’ve been through, I’m just really proud of our guys that we’ve stayed the course. They’ve stayed positive, and they found a way (Saturday),” Groce said. “Winners, sometimes, you get behind the eight ball, you’ve got to assemble and find a way to get it done. The guys did that today, I thought it was good.

“I do think our young guys are getting better. I thought we played one of our better basketball games all year this past Wednesday night (against Yale). I think we’re getting better. Some guys are getting better through the baptism-by-fire deal. I’m thrilled with the way they’ve been able to sustain their poise, their energy, being positive. We’ve got a really good locker room when it comes to character, and that’s going to give us a chance to continue to improve.”

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?