Big Ten

Northwestern's Alex Olah proves 'beast' moniker with big first game

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Northwestern's Alex Olah proves 'beast' moniker with big first game

Alex Olah is a beast.

Northwestern’s senior center earned the first Big Ten Player of the Week honors handed out this season after turning in a double-double in the Cats’ season-opening win over UMass Lowell with  21 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of blocks.

Olah is going to be a ridiculously huge part of this team — both literally and figuratively — as it looks do something a Northwestern team has never done before: make the NCAA tournament.

Last season, the seven-footer from Romania ranked fifth in Big Ten in rebounding and second in blocks. He’s one of Northwestern’s two senior leaders, along with guard Tre Demps, and if the Cats reach the Big Dance for the first time ever, he’ll be a big reason why.

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern uses big second half to win season-opener]

Back to him being a beast, though.

Third-year coach Chris Collins has transformed Northwestern from a Big Ten laughing stock into a team with not so funny postseason aspirations. He’s done it through recruiting successes, and he’s done it with positive energy. He’s also done it by transforming the players who were here when he arrived, Olah included.

“My confidence is always up,” Olah said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “Every game or in practice, it’s always there. I never let myself down. But coach Collins kind of made me be this confident.

“I remember, I think the first weeks we practiced ever, I see him outside the locker room, and he calls me over and tells me: ‘Hey, when you wake up in the morning, I want you to look in the mirror and say, I’m a — expletive — beast.’ That was kind of a thing that was going on between us. He calls me ‘beast,’ everybody kind of calls me ‘beast.’ It’s a cool thing. But back then, I was a sophomore. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can be that guy, honestly.’ And now I feel that way. I hope I can be the beast of the Big Ten.”

Through one week, Olah is the beast of the Big Ten.

[MORE BIG TEN: Badgers drop out, five Big Ten teams ranked in latest AP poll]

Collins knows the journey Olah has been on, how he's improved his game. He knows that for the Cats to get where they've never been before, Olah will have to play a huge part.

"You see the improvements he's made from his freshman year to now his senior year, you see all the work he's put in," Collins said on media day. "He's changed his body, he's developed a really nice low-post game. He's always been an incredibly skilled big man who can step out on the floor. He can make a shot, he can pass. I think just the confidence of having success at this level has been big for him.

"You know, certainly for us to be a good team this year, we're going to need for him to be a presence down low and to be a consistent guy in our league that can be potential double-double guy. And we're going to need that. I think he relishes that opportunity. He's really stepped into the leadership role nicely. He's been much more vocal than he's ever been. And we have to make sure that we use what he can bring to the team, and there's no question in order for us to maximize, we need him to have a great year for us."

Olah is looking to have a senior season to remember, and that means getting his teammates to be beasts, too, and turn the Cats into a contender.

“The team’s improved every year, as you can see,” Olah said. “Every year, we’ve been working really hard on and off the court, in the offseason or during the season. And we’re as hungry as we’ve been in a long time. Especially for the seniors, for Tre and I, we want this to be a really special year for us. We’re trying every day to se how we can get better as a team and how can we make the team be accountable in every practice. That’s part of the leadership. The seniors have that responsibility. Tre and I really take pride in that.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]

The Cats received a big blow when sophomore Vic Law was ruled out for the season, requiring surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. That certainly puts more pressure on Olah, Demps, Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and others.

But that core group is joined by a couple of exciting freshman in Aaron Falzon and Jordan Ash. Falzon has already impressed, as he scored 20 points in the season-opener, hitting four 3-pointers. Collins and Northwestern players said in the preseason that Falzon is already one of the conference’s best 3-point shooters, and he had yet to play a game.

Not every opponent will be UMass Lowell, of course. Northwestern has an incredible challenge against No. 1 North Carolina this month before a grueling Big Ten schedule, which has been the team’s downfall in recent seasons. Last year, the Cats lost 10 straight Big Ten games, and the conference is expected to be even better this season.

Even those with the rosiest outlook for Northwestern aren’t expecting it to be easy for the Cats to get on or near the NCAA tournament bubble. But in Olah’s final season, he wants to look back and be proud of the way his team competed.

“We’re going to take things game by game, day by day, and we’re going to see the results at the end of April,” he said. “We’ll see what we accomplish this year, and whatever we accomplish, we accomplish. But I want to look at the end of my senior year knowing that I gave my best, the team gave their best, and whatever the outcome will be, I’ll be happy with it."

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.