Big Ten

John Groce finally has some good news on Illini injury front

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John Groce finally has some good news on Illini injury front

2015 was a miserable year when it came to injury news for the Fighting Illini.

Tracy Abrams had his senior season washed away for a second straight year with a summertime injury. Jalen Coleman-Lands fractured his leg during the preseason. And Leron Black and Mike Thorne both missed the majority of the season with knee injuries.

The rash of injuries wasn't the only thing that kept the Illini out of the NCAA tournament field for the third straight season, but it was most definitely a contributing factor.

The arrival of summer, though, brings the transition to the 2016-17 season, what is almost surely a make-or-break one for John Groce, who has just one invite to the Big Dance in his four years in Champaign. And for the first time in what seemed like forever, Groce was able to deliver a bunch of positive news on the injury front as Illinois' summer practices roll on.

Groce started with Abrams, who suffered a torn ACL and a torn Achilles the past two summers, heartbreakingly wiping out senior seasons before they began and leaving the Illini without a reliable point guard. The upcoming season will be much different with the veteran floor general actually on the floor.

"Tracy’s doing really well. Everything from a health perspective, physically, is ahead of schedule," Groce told reporters Thursday. "He feels great, he’s strong. His body fat’s seven percent, it’s the lowest it’s ever been. His conditioning — I don’t know if it’s November game shape yet, but it’s getting closer. He’s worked really hard at it. He feels great. We’re just being with him a little bit conservative right now. He’s been able to do one-man group workouts. He was in a group workout Monday and looked great. Today he worked out in here and looked really explosive in terms of lift off the floor. And I think he’s starting to get even more and more confidence in his body. We’ll play it by ear, but we’re probably two to four weeks away before we cut him loose."

Black and Thorne are also progressing nicely, it sounds like, after the duo — which was supposed to be the team's starting front court last season — combined to appear in only 15 games. Thorne recently received great news when the NCAA approved his hardship waiver and granted him a sixth year of eligibility. Black, meanwhile, was one of three Illinois players to deal with legal issues this spring and will be suspended for the first handful of games of the upcoming campaign.

"Thorne came back to campus over the weekend after getting the news of his waiver, which we’re all excited about. So he’s back," Groce said. "Knee looks good, really good, structurally great. The strength between the two knees is very similar, which is what you want so you don’t overcompensate. We do want to get him in a little better cardio condition, drop just a few pounds to take some of that stress off the lower body. He’s already huge, and we want to make sure with a lower body extremity injury that he’s coming off of that we don’t put any excess weight on that right now. He’s probably a week to two weeks away from full go. We’re going to assess and monitor him, try to get the weight at a certain number, make sure we get his lower body where it needs to be, as well. We’re doing different rehab things with both him and Tracy that will be a part of what they do the entire year."

“Leron is doing well," Groce added. "He’s full go right now, which is great. He got cleared full go over the weekend, that’s the first time since the injury that he’s been full go. Strength is great. He experiences a little bit of soreness every once in a while after some workouts, nothing out of the norm, nothing that’s not expected after going through what he went through, nothing that’s going to slow him down. He feels good, his body looks great. … He’s trimmed down. He’s really starting to pay more attention to his diet, and I think that’s really impacted him.”

Then there's Te'Jon Lucas, the incoming freshman point guard from Milwaukee. Despite not even being with the Illini yet, he was bit by the same injury bug, breaking bones in his foot during a fall in a high school game that was coincidentally played in Champaign with Groce looking on.

"Te’Jon moved in this past weekend. He had the surgery with the foot where they put screws in there. He’s been out of the boot for roughly a month or so, so we’ve slowed him down a little bit this first week or two," Groce said. "He is cleared to do skill instruction, he’s getting shots up and free throws and ball handling. But we won’t clear him for contact until we make sure the right leg’s as strong as the left leg. We want them both equal. It’s not quite there right now, and before we cut him loose with contact, we want to make sure we’ve got that equalized. … I expect that sometime in the next month or so that he could be full go, as well."

Even though most of the names will be familiar, it will be a very different-looking Illini team in 2016-17 with the team at full strength. The holes at point guard and in the front court last season were caused with three would-be starters missing practically the entire season. With those three players back in the fold alongside Malcolm Hill and a fully recovered Coleman-Lands, the Illini could be a much different team and end the season in much different fashion from each of the past three.

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?