Big Ten

With Northwestern up next, Steve Pikiell sees his Rutgers team on Cats-esque mission

With Northwestern up next, Steve Pikiell sees his Rutgers team on Cats-esque mission

WASHINGTON — The Big Ten Tournament had to come to the East Coast to make it happen, but Rutgers finally got its first win in its new conference's tournament.

The Scarlet Knights impressed with a gutsy performance Wednesday, besting a not-as-good-as-usual group of Ohio State Buckeyes by dominating the boards and turning a whopping 19 offensive rebounds into 22 second-chance points.

It helped, of course, that Ohio State missed 13 free throws and made just five baskets in the second half of the 66-57 decision. But Rutgers will take what looks like a program-building win for first-year head coach Steve Pikiell.

The Knights have earned props from Big Ten coaches this season, Pikiell's peers noting that this year's team hasn't been a pushover. Of course, not being a pushover doesn't help much when the losses still stack up — and Rutgers had the most of any team in the league, 3-15 during the conference season.

But with the glare of the championship-week lights shining on Wednesday, more people got to see that this isn't you're brother who's one year older than you's Rutgers team.

"You know, this team has really competed. We learned how to compete this year," Pikiell said after Wednesday's win. "We couldn't close out some games. But it's a process when you're building a program. It takes steps.

"We got Rutgers going in the right direction. I'm very proud to be the head coach. It's a great university with great people. Our team is trying to work hard to make this a real proud program."

The supposed laughing stock of the Big Ten hasn't had its opponents doing much chuckling over its past two games. In the regular-season finale this past Saturday, Rutgers beat Illinois on a last-second 3-pointer to seemingly dash the Fighting Illini's NCAA tournament hopes. Of course, the Illini woke up Monday still on that NCAA tournament bubble. But then Rutgers did what it did Wednesday against Ohio State and capped Thad Matta's worst season in Columbus.

Next up is Northwestern, and the Wildcats are four years down the road in their head coach's own program rebuild. Chris Collins is just a few days away from taking Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament ever. The Cats earned a first-round bye in this week's Big Ten Tournament thanks in part to two wins over Rutgers. But those wins came by just a combined 13 points, and Collins has been one of those coaches describing this Rutgers team as a challenge.

That's likely to make Pikiell proud, as he's trying to do something in New Jersey similar to what Collins has done just north of Chicago.

"Coach Collins has done an unbelievable job," Pikiell said. "They have very good players. It's a really difficult game, especially on half-a-day prep. But our guys will fight. Again, I like their team a lot. They're playing with great chemistry. I watched them play a lot.

"They're on a little bit of a mission. We're trying to be on a mission ourselves."

The popular saying during championship week is that it's hard to beat a team three times in the same season. I think Collins and his Cats would readily admit it was hard to beat Rutgers twice this season. They trailed in the second half of both games.

The talk surrounding Northwestern this season is that a lot of firsts are being accomplished, with the big one just a few days away.

With its first Big Ten Tournament win, Rutgers has a first of its own.

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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