Big Ten

Northwestern's offense nowhere to be found as Illini complete sweep of season series

Northwestern's offense nowhere to be found as Illini complete sweep of season series

Northwestern's offense is missing in action, and not even the return of Scottie Lindsey is producing any points for the Wildcats right now.

Seemingly on the verge of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, Northwestern can't seem to find the bottom of the basket, a problem that was glaringly exposed by an opportunistic Illinois team Tuesday night in Champaign.

Good defense by the Illini and atrocious offense by the Cats meant John Groce's team completed a sweep of the regular-season series between the in-state rivals with a 66-50 blowout of a decision at the State Farm Center.

Give Illinois plenty of credit for its defensive work, but it was hard to watch a Northwestern offense that has rarely seemed in sync since Lindsey began his four-game absence back on Feb. 1. He returned over the weekend against Rutgers and played Tuesday night against Illinois, but the Cats' leading scorer hasn't done much in his two games back. He scored just two points on 1-for-11 shooting Tuesday.

But Lindsey's personal woes were just the tip of the iceberg for Northwestern. The 50-point output was the team's lowest of the season as it shot 32.1 percent from the field, a number dragged down by a horrendous second half that saw the Cats shoot 18.5 percent (5-for-27 from the field), muster just 18 points and at one point go nearly 10 minutes without a made basket. Northwestern hit just once, a Nathan Taphorn 3 with a little more than a minute to play, over the game's final 10 minutes. The Cats also turned the ball over 11 times, including eight giveaways in the first half that led to 13 points for the Illini. Northwestern was just 4-for-18 from 3-point range on the night.

Despite all those problems, it took Illinois an awful long time to pull away. The Illini didn't shoot too well, either: 40 percent on the game and 37 percent in the second half. They owned just a one-point lead at halftime and joined the Cats in offensive ineptitude for much of the evening. But when Northwestern ran completely out of gas — Bryant McIntosh's bucket to bring the Cats within three with 10 and a half minutes left was the last real moment of danger for the Illini — Illinois was finally able to create some separation. Sporadic baskets and free throws slowly built the lead, which quietly reached double figures as Northwestern remained silent, before Malcolm Hill's 3-pointer with three minutes left served as the dagger to extend the gap to 16.

Hill finished with a game-high 18 points, 13 of which came after halftime. Leron Black was the other Illinois player in double figures with 11.

McIntosh scored a team-high 16 points for Northwestern, though he was an inefficient 6-for-17 from the field. Still it was a better result than the majority of his teammates. Lindsey's rough night teamed with Vic Law's three-point, 0-for-4 performance, and the two guys not named McIntosh that the Cats rely on to produce combined for five points on 1-for-15 shooting. Isiah Brown was 4-for-14 for nine points, and Gavin Skelly joined McIntosh in double figures with 11 points, six coming on a pair of made 3-pointers.

It's tough to expect too much from Lindsey just in his second game back from a mono-induced absence that head coach Chris Collins described as three weeks without exercise. But it's clear that the offensive doldrums for the Cats are not going away. This performance was by far the team's worst of the season, though it wasn't too dissimilar from what happened over the course of the five games that preceded it. Low shooting numbers and struggles from anyone not named McIntosh have now resulted in four losses in Northwestern's last six games. It's not at all good for a team that while seemingly a lock for an NCAA tournament appearance is in danger of stumbling its way to the Big Dance.

Meanwhile, as the speculation continues that John Groce might be in a position where he's fighting for his job, the win was huge for the Illini. Two weeks ago, the win at Northwestern was Illinois' best of the season, and now this win made two over a team flirting with a spot in the top-25 rankings and seemingly destined to be included in the NCAA tournament field. Illinois is still just 16-12 overall and 6-9 in Big Ten play, and there's no glory in that as the Illini appear on track to play in one of the two Wednesday-night games in the Big Ten Tournament. But with Groce's seat as hot as any coach's in the conference, any success is positive, and his team now has back-to-back league wins for the first time since 2015.

Just three games remain for both squads, and obviously given their positions in the standings, they loom far larger for Northwestern. The Cats travel to play Indiana and have home games against Michigan and Purdue to end the regular-season schedule. Illinois travels to Nebraska, plays host to Michigan State and travels to Rutgers to wrap the regular season. The verdict might be in on these seasons in the big picture — the best campaign Northwestern has ever had and a continued tournament drought for Illinois — but these last three games could dramatically alter the future of these programs.

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.