Big Ten

Scary night for Northwestern, but Cats have legitimate NCAA tournament resume

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USA TODAY

Scary night for Northwestern, but Cats have legitimate NCAA tournament resume

If this is to be the year Northwestern finally reaches the NCAA tournament, you can look back on Saturday night's win over Dayton and the sheer fact that it wasn't a loss.

The Wildcats' nearly collapsed in epic fashion, dominating for 30 minutes before watching a 23-point halftime advantage evaporate practically down to nothing while somehow holding off the visiting Flyers for a 67-64 victory at the United Center.

Northwestern made just one basket over the game's final 10 minutes. The Cats made six total shots in the second half and missed a worrisome nine free throws on the night.

But a win is a win, as they say, and for a program that historically hasn't seen a lot of those, this is a victory the Cats were happy to claim.

"We knew they were going to make their push at the end. In games like this last year, I think we weren't as mentally tough, and sometimes we might have turned the ball over," Vic Law said after the game. "Or even in games earlier this season, we had to take our lumps down the stretch in games, the Notre Dame game. I think we learned from our mistakes, and we're becoming a lot more mature."

"Showing the growth of this team and this program, in years past, this was a game that maybe we would have given up that lead in the second half, and we maybe wouldn't have won that game, wouldn't have made those tough plays," Sanjay Lumpkin said. "Lot of guys stepped up and made big free throws down the stretch. It was great to see that growth, as Vic just said. And it was mature of us."

While the final 20 minutes Saturday didn't inspire much confidence in outside observers, maybe this is a sign of growth, and certainly the program seems to be taking the steps head coach Chris Collins is always talking about.

For the first time in a long time, the Cats have a legitimate tournament resume as they exit the non-conference portion of their schedule. Northwestern sits at 9-2 through 11 games with wins over name programs Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton. Its two losses very easily could've been wins, but they still don't look bad: narrow defeats by a combined six points against currently ranked Notre Dame and Butler teams. A decent showing during Big Ten play would figure to put the Cats in the discussion for a spot in the 68-team field. A slightly better-than-expected showing with a marquee win or two — not impossible considering Northwestern has two wins apiece over Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin during Collins' tenure — could make things real interesting.

"I just believe we're a team that's good," Collins said after Saturday's game. "Whether we are or not, that's up to you to determine. We come into games like this believing we're going to win. And that's, to me, the steps we've taken. I think in the past we've had good attitudes and we've come into games like this hoping that we'd play well. We certainly don't play to lose. But maybe not having that belief that we're supposed to win games like this. I thought coming into this game, these last two days, like our guys had an attitude that this is a game we're supposed to win, and I love that. That's what the good programs do.

"We have a long way to go. We're not close to where we want to be. We still have to get healthy. ... I think we've got a lot better basketball to play. But from what we've been through, the schedule we've played through 11 games, I think we've played six high major opponents in 11 games. To be 9-2 and to play teams like Butler and Notre Dame, you've got to feel good about where we're at. I know our guys do."

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned coming out of Saturday's near-disaster. This isn't the first time this happened this season, as Law alluded to. Northwestern led in the final minute in each of its losses, especially and maddeningly fumbling away that game against Notre Dame.

Saturday saw the Cats race out to their huge lead, up by 22 with 10 minutes left. But then they ran out of gas. Collins talked about it.

"I thought we got fatigued. I just did," Collins said. "I thought we got tired, and I thought we expended a lot of energy the first 30 minutes. ... I thought we were just kind of trying to get through the rest. Every dead ball, I saw guys on their knees, and I just kept telling them, 'eight minutes, six minutes, four minutes, two minutes.' And I thought more than us not wanting to win or not expecting to win, I just thought their quickness and athleticism kind of wore us down a little bit. And we were just trying to get to the finish line."

They barely made it. Another few minutes, and they might've been passed. That's not going to fly against the Wisconsins, Indianas and Purdues once Big Ten play starts.

But from a big-picture standpoint, Northwestern is still very much alive when it comes to reaching the Big Dance for the first time ever and it has a pretty nice resume to back it up. Conference play will determine the Cats' ultimate fate, and the biggest key to reaching the Madness will obviously be avoiding the horrendous losing streaks that have doomed Collins in his first three seasons: seven games in 2014, 10 in 2015 and an eight-of-10 skid last season.

But as for now, like the man said, "you've got to feel good about where we're at."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?