Big Ten

Illini have Braggin' Rights, but do they have a good tournament resume after non-conference season?

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USA TODAY

Illini have Braggin' Rights, but do they have a good tournament resume after non-conference season?

Braggin’ Rights are in the bag for the Fighting Illini, winners over rival Missouri for the fourth consecutive season.

But Wednesday night’s game in St. Louis has done what most non-conference games featuring the Illini have done in recent seasons: lost some of the luster.

The Braggin’ Rights game used to be a must-circle date on the calendar because these two squads always provided closely contested games. And while this week’s edition was determined by a single-digit margin, was anyone really jazzed for an Illinois team that hasn’t gone dancing in three straight seasons and a Missouri team that’s fallen even further, winners of just 19 games in the first two seasons under Kim Anderson?

But let’s move on from the perception of that rivalry to the perception of the Illini as they exit the non-conference portion of the schedule and prepare for league play, which starts Tuesday against Maryland.

Illinois should be looking great right now, and by some measures it does. The RPI is a big fan, ranking the Illini at No. 32 in the country. KenPom? Not so much, placing Illinois at No. 65.

The name wins look like this: North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri. All are a part of John Groce’s team’s current six-game winning streak.

But the losses are what matter in this equation. A miserable Thanksgiving week featured three straight losses against Winthrop, West Virginia and Florida State. The latter two were ranked in the AP poll at the time and go No. 7 and No. 26 in the KenPom rankings. The home loss to Winthrop is a killer, the 127th team in the KenPom rankings.

While the ugly week that saw a loss to a Big South team on its home floor and two losses by a combined 43 points seems to have doomed Illinois’ national perception — it’s getting zero votes in the AP and coaches polls, while a similar Big Ten team, Northwestern, is receiving votes in at least the AP (the Cats are 11-2, the Illini are 10-3) — there’s good news coming out of this non-conference season for Illinois.

Compare the Illini’s current standing to where it was coming out of non-conference play in the last three seasons, when it missed the NCAA tournament. Last year, Illinois ranked 130th in non-conference RPI. It ranked 61st and 54th in the two previous seasons, 2014-15 and 2013-14, respectively.

The Illini have a much better head start this season. Of course, the determining factor in whether Groce’s team can break the program’s longest tournament drought since the early 1980s will be how it fares in conference play.

For what it’s worth, Illinois is the third-ranked team in the Big Ten in the RPI. KenPom has the Illini as the 10th ranked team in his rankings, ahead of only Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers.

The Illini should feel a lot better about their tournament chances no than they did at this time last season, when they were 8-5. The key? Win a lot more conference games than last year. You can thank Captain Obvious all you want on that one, but a repeat of last season — a grotesque 5-13 Big Ten record — will render any good vibes from the non-conference season completely moot.

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.