Big Ten

Illini keep making things interesting, beat Michigan State to keep NCAA tournament hopes alive

malcolm-hill-0301.jpg
AP

Illini keep making things interesting, beat Michigan State to keep NCAA tournament hopes alive

Illinois is making things really interesting.

The Illini seem to have waited until the last possible moment to make a late-season run that could end with them in the NCAA tournament. And those postseason hopes are still alive, as hard as that might seem to believe, after John Groce's team reeled off its fourth straight win on Wednesday night in Champaign, winning the biggest of the two games remaining on its regular-season schedule by beating the visiting Michigan State Spartans by a 73-70 score.

Illinois had a lead as big as 11 midway through the second half but watched Michigan State mount a furious rally, wiping that margin almost all the way clean. The Spartans had the gap down to four on multiple occasions, none more dramatic than when Miles Bridges splashed home a 3-pointer with under five minutes to play. Kenny Goins again brought the deficit to just four with a basket with under two minutes to play, and in the game's final minute another Bridges 3 chopped the lead to just one, at 71-70.

Maverick Morgan played hero from there, grabbing a massive offensive rebound on the ensuing possession. Malcolm Hill split a pair of free throws, and after Bridges missed a game-tying shot attempt, Kipper Nichols also split a pair of free throws. Michigan State, down three with three seconds left, couldn't pull off the type of improbable full-court heroics Northwestern did earlier in the night in a win over Michigan, allowing Illinois to grab a landmark win in its quest to keep its postseason hopes alive.

Hill finished with a game-high 22 points, one better than Bridges' 21-point output. Leron Black had 15 for Illinois, and Morgan ended with 14 points. Alvin Ellis III scored 15 for Michigan State, and Nick Ward finished with 11.

The prospect of the Illini snapping their three-year NCAA tournament drought seemed laughable not too long ago. But Illinois is now on a four-game win streak with wins in five of its last six games. What was a 3-8 conference record is now an 8-9 conference record, and the Illini have a strong chance of finishing the season .500 in the league with their final regular-season game coming against Rutgers, the conference's worst team.

The NCAA tournament resume isn't glistening. But this late-season surge features a pair of wins over Northwestern, plus this victory over Michigan State, two teams that seemd destined for the Big Dance. The Illini also have wins this season against Michigan, VCU and North Carolina State. In a season where the bubble is being described nationwide as weak, it's enough to get Illinois into the conversation. And even that is a shocker considering where this team was just a few weeks ago.

But the play has improved dramatically in recent games. Just once since the end of January has a team scored more than 70 points against the Illinois defense.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.

 

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