Big Ten

The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't like the Big Ten — but should we blame them?

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USA TODAY

The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't like the Big Ten — but should we blame them?

The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't think much of the Big Ten.

But should we blame them?

For the first time — taking a cue from the must-see TV that is the weekly releases of rankings ahead of the final picks for College Football Playoff — the tourney selection committee is releasing top-16 rankings ahead of Selection Sunday.

The first batch came Saturday, 21 days before the entire bracket will be officially announced. The field of 16 teams, complete with which regions the Nos 1 through 4 seeds would be placed in, looked to set up for a pretty fun Big Dance.

Here's how it shook out:

Notice anything strange? Look again. You won't see a single Big Ten team among the committee's top 16.

At first blush, that seems a bit outrageous, right? Even in a down season, could the Big Ten really not claim one of the top 16 teams in the country? And it becomes especially head-scratching when you look at the AP top-25 rankings, the most recent of which have Wisconsin as the No. 7 team in the country and Purdue at No. 16.

But think on things a little bit longer, and perhaps you too will struggle to come up with a reason why the Badgers, the Boilermakers or any other Big Ten team belongs in the top 16 over any of the squads the committee placed there.

The sad truth this season is that the Big Ten has just not been that impressive. Top to bottom, that's plainly true. After the top three or four teams, there's a significant drop off into mediocrity. While bracketologists still seem intent on handing out invites to as many as eight teams from the conference, does anyone who watches the league on a regular basis see the likes of Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan as March contenders?

While that's a more broad conversation, it shows how the conference as a whole reflects on the top two teams. The Badgers and Boilers weren't included in the top 16 on Saturday because it seems the committee doesn't view being one of the top two teams in the Big Ten as a very noteworthy accomplishment in 2016-17.

Separately, both Wisconsin and Purdue have had their stumbles. Sure, the Badgers look good when it comes to results, but how they've gotten those results hasn't always been pretty. Wisconsin is on an eight-game win streak and has lost just once since Thanksgiving, but half of its last six wins have come in overtime against weaker competition. The Badgers barely survived against Minnesota, Rutgers and Nebraska. A team deserving of conversation for a No. 1 seed probably shouldn't be doing that. Purdue, meanwhile, boasts one of the frontrunners for national player of the year, but the Boilers have losses to Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, surely results that affected their standing with the committee.

But it's not only the teams at the top who should be worried about not getting a top-four seed. Lower down the standings, maybe there are more Big Ten bubble teams than the bracketologists believe. Maybe the Spartans, Gophers and Wolverines start slipping out of the projections entirely, like the Indiana Hoosiers already have started doing. Maybe Northwestern should be a little worried about landing on that bubble considering what the committee seemingly thinks about the league as a whole.

There's a month more of basketball to be played, and all this could change come not only Selection Sunday but as soon as next week. But for now, though, it looks like Wisconsin and Purdue have some work to do to impress their way into a higher seed. The biggest question is whether they even have the power to do that as mediocrity continues to reign in the standings below them.

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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