Big Ten

Tom Izzo with accurate assessment: Big Ten Tournament 'is wide open, more so than it's ever been'

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Tom Izzo with accurate assessment: Big Ten Tournament 'is wide open, more so than it's ever been'

"This conference season, there's a lot of good teams. Everybody has shown that on a given night anybody can win."

Chris Collins said that following Northwestern's narrow defeat at the hands of Big Ten champ Purdue on Sunday. That's no sort of unique sentiment, something that gets uttered by Big Ten coaches every season.

But this year, that point seems to have more merit than ever as the league's 14 teams head to Washington this week for what looks like a wide-open conference tournament.

Now just because there are a lot of contenders for a conference-tournament crown doesn't mean the league is extraordinarily strong. But in what started as a seemingly mediocre season for the Big Ten, more teams have emerged that have given this conference some heft in the season's latest stages.

Count Tom Izzo, the Big Ten's elder statesman, as someone who's sticking up for his league, beliving it hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves nationally this season, particularly when compared to other conferences.

"We have not done a good job of promoting the Big Ten," Izzo told reporters Sunday after Michigan State's regular-season finale at Maryland. "The ACC must have — I don't know, Virginia loses a game and it's because everybody else is good. The Pac-12, (Bill) Walton's out there (calling it the) 'champion's conference.' Nobody talks about our conference. That's our fault, that's your (the media's) fault, that's my fault.

"If you think it's easy to go on the road in this conference and win anywhere. And maybe Penn State is the one place that doesn't sell out, and we played them in The Palestra. Shows you how frickin' dumb I am."

Izzo circled back to that talk during Monday's Big Ten coaches teleconference.

"I do feel, as the senior spokesman of our group, that I need to clarify that," he said. "It's just amazing. Like Indiana, they beat Kansas and North Carolina, and then they get decimated with injuries, a couple of key injuries besides having the (Collin) Hartman kid out for the year. I just think for some reason in other leagues when the bottom beats the top — I mean, I think it was North Carolina State beat Duke. I'm not sure they won another game after that."

For what it's worth, only the ACC has more teams in the field of 68 than the Big Ten in the latest bracket projection from ESPN's Joe Lunardi. The Big Ten is just one of three conferences with at least seven teams in that projection. Who knows if that's how it will play out come Selection Sunday.

[TICKETS: Get your seats for the Big Ten Tournament]

But back to this week's Big Ten Tournament in Washington. The points of Collins and Izzo seem to be good ones.

Yes, Purdue has firmly established itself as the favorite, the league's best team with an outright regular-season championship and the slam-dunk conference player of the year in Caleb Swanigan. The Boilermakers have impressed by not suffering the same two-week stumbles as almost every one of its Big Ten cohorts.

But as good as Purdue has been, there is no shortage of challengers that seem to have a legitimate shot at preventing its winning another conference title.

"What we have (when you look at this year's Big Ten Tournament), go ahead, tell me you'd rather play No. 12 or No. 7, tell me you'd rather play No. 13 or No. 5. It is wide open," Izzo said Monday. "There's a lot of parity, that means a lot of people beating up on each other. Unfortunately, we also forget that Purdue, that was a one-point game to Villanova early in the year. There were some big games that we played and other teams played, and I just want to make sure that everybody else gives us the same respect. Parity doesn't mean poor, sometimes parity means we're deeper top to bottom.

"So I think the tournament is wide open, more so than it's ever been."

Wisconsin, Maryland and Northwestern all bounced back from losing stretches in the season's final week. The Wildcats grabbed that thrilling midweek win over Michigan. The Badgers thumped red-hot Minnesota on Sunday night. The Terps won its last two regular-season games against Rutgers and Michigan State.

Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa are all riding hot stretches into the conference tournament and can claim to playing the best basketball right this moment of any teams in the league. The Wolverines have won six of eight, capped with a 36-point drubbing of Nebraska on Sunday night. The Golden Gophers might have lost Sunday in Madison but entered that game with a jaw-dropping eight-game winning streak. The Hawkeyes have won four straight and six of nine, miraculously getting into the NCAA tournament conversation.

Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State have things to prove. The Fighting Illini are still somehow in the NCAA tournament discussion despite losing at Rutgers on Saturday. The Hoosiers could potentially be playing for Tom Crean's job. The Buckeyes have played everyone close this season.

Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers have skidded to the finish of the regular season. But that trio claims wins over Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue.

[PODCAST: Favorites, sleepers and predictions for the Big Ten Tournament]

Then there's Izzo's Michigan State team, the No. 5 seed this week. Izzo has won 27 Big Ten Tournament games, the most all-time, and has five tournament championships. Certainly the Spartans are a threat to win the thing again this season with their three fabulous freshmen: Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston.

There's good advice this time of year: Don't bet against Izzo in March.

He seems to be suggesting something similar this time around.

"We get into any tournament, we're going to be a hard out," Izzo said Saturday. "Whether we're good enough to sustain some things over a period of time. We better not win a game because these guys are that close, I think, from taking anhother giant step."

So whether it is the Spartans who end up challening Purdue, or whether it's any other team from Minnesota to Michigan to Maryland to Northwestern to Indiana, there's no easy way to predict what will happen this weekend. That's not necessarily a sign that the Big Ten is good or bad or the best conference in America or in a down year. It's just reality at the moment.

In other words, get ready for an entertaining week in Washington.

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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