Big Ten

Minnesota's turnaround continues to be remarkable, and Gophers want you to know: 'We're not done yet'

Minnesota's turnaround continues to be remarkable, and Gophers want you to know: 'We're not done yet'

WASHINGTON — After Minnesota lost 23 games a season ago, there wasn't much preseason love for the Golden Gophers.

Even after a 12-1 non-conference season, a run in the Big Ten — where they were 2-16 last year — seemed a tough ask. A five-game losing streak didn't help that perception.

But then the Gophers rattled off eight straight wins and knocked off perennial March powerhouse Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday afternoon.

If you're surprised, maybe you haven't been paying attention over the last month and a half. If you weren't, your name might've been Reggie Lynch.

"We knew we were going to be a great team before the season even started," said Lynch, Minnesota's big man and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, after Friday's win. "As the season has gone on, we knew we were going to be one of the better teams. We're trying to climb to the highest seed we could get.

"It's really just been a great year. We're not done yet."

Friday's win in the conference tournament perhaps more than anything besides that flipped record — from 8-23 last season to 24-8 this season — underlined how incredible this turnaround has been.

In last season's Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota was squashed, losing by more than 30 points to an Illinois team that didn't even sniff the NCAA tournament bubble. This season, it's a double bye and a win over Michigan State to reach the semifinals.

"There was nothing more demoralizing than going to a conference tournament last year with three players suspended (and) Joey King (injured with a) broken foot. I walked out of the elevator today, there was our band, our cheerleaders. I don't remember anyone there playing songs last year," Pitino said. "Maybe they did, I don't know. I might have gone out the backdoor.

"So this is what March is supposed to be all about. We did believe we would be a good team. We just felt like we were going to have to eat crow for a little while, for a couple months. Internally we believed that we were really going to make a huge jump. Our guys have shown that. I mean, we've won nine of 10 in this conference. We won eight in a row. That's pretty special."

For those who have been paying attention, Minnesota's win Friday was hardly unexpected. The Gophers have been among the conference's best teams this season and especially since the start of February. They've lost just one time since.

But the talk in Saturday's semifinal with Michigan will likely be all about the Wolverines. After all, that's a heck of a story, what with Michigan enduring that aborted-takeoff nightmare on Wednesday before winning twice in two days here in Washington, including Friday's upset of top-seeded Purdue.

But Pitino, meaning no disrespect to Michigan, thinks Minnesota is worthy of some discussion, as well.

"Don't get me wrong. What Michigan went through, it makes you all think twice," Pitino said. "I'm so happy for those guys, that they're safe, that they're playing for each other. Something like that puts everything in perspective. So happy that all those guys are safe. They were able to get here. They're embracing the moment. They're not rattled by it, which is special to see.

"But I think we got a pretty special story, too.

"I think our story is great. We went into the season with a lot of question marks, a lot of uncertainty. We ended a season with, you know, nobody really believing in us. I'm not sure they should have. We just dealt with it. We believed in what we were doing. We turned it around."

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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