Big Ten

Tom Izzo calls out veteran players after Michigan State gets upset by Northeastern for season's fifth loss

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Tom Izzo calls out veteran players after Michigan State gets upset by Northeastern for season's fifth loss

What in the world is going on in East Lansing?

We haven’t hit the start of conference play, and Michigan State already has five losses.

That’s a shocking reality for the perennial powerhouse, which if it doesn’t contend in the Big Ten might find itself on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. The Spartans haven’t missed a Big Dance in two decades, the last March without an invite to the Madness coming in 1997, Tom Izzo’s second season as head coach.

The talk has reached that point thanks to Sunday night’s shocking home loss to Northeastern, coming by an 81-73 score.

Among other transgressions, Michigan State allowed Northeastern to splash home 11 3-pointers, missed 10 free throws and surrendered 10 second-chance points. The visiting Huskies dominated the final 11 minutes, breaking away from a six-point Spartans lead on a 28-10 run that saw them take a commanding double-digit advantage late in the game.

“There’s nothing more than they got loose balls and we didn’t, they made shots and we didn’t. Layups and dunks, those are inexcusable. Some of our best free throw shooters just missed some free throws,” Izzo said after the game. “When you’re up six, you’ve got a chance to really extend it and we just didn’t do that.

“I just wasn’t satisfied with the level of toughness that we didn’t display. That is never something that this program stands for. We need to go out and play harder I guess.”

If those comments didn’t drive it home, Izzo was obviously upset after Sunday’s loss, and as he continued he had a specific target for his frustrations.

After back-to-back seasons with big-time upperclassmen driving the bus for Michigan State — Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello — this year’s team, at least from the outside, is focused around a hyped group of freshmen. But Izzo still has upperclassmen, they just aren’t playing to his liking. Eron Harris is missing an awful lot of shots, and Tum Tum Nairn (admittedly not a scorer) and Kenny Goins are combining to average under eight points a game.

“Right now we’re struggling with a couple guys that I think have to play well for us to win, Eron and Kenny. We’re just not getting enough out of them, especially Kenny,” Izzo said Sunday night. “Some of our veterans need to play better if we’re going to be any good.

“I have not been satisfied with the play of a couple guys. I have not been satisfied with the upperclassmen. I have not been satisfied with the toughness that they play with. What I take out of it, we need to get much tougher. We need to play much harder.”

Of course, two or three guys not producing can’t shoulder the blame for a five-loss non-conference schedule. Injuries have a lot to do with it, as the Michigan State front court was decimated before the season even began, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter both knocked out and putting a lot of pressure on the younger guys. That includes star freshman Miles Bridges, who himself has been sidelined with an injury for the past four games.

The Spartans were an unusual .500 at one point this season, losers of four of their first eight games. And while those defeats were upsetting for the team and its fans, surely they could’ve been excused. After all, those four losses came against teams currently ranked in the top 19, three of them the Nos. 3, 5 and 6 teams in the country (Baylor, Duke and Kentucky; Arizona is ranked No. 19).

But that brutal schedule might prove Michigan State’s undoing. A pretty strong showing will be required during Big Ten play in order to amass the wins necessary to reach the NCAA tournament. And the way the Spartans have played, is anyone thinking they’ll challenge the Wisconsins, Purdues and Indianas of the world for a Big Ten title?

Wins have perhaps been just as troubling as the rapidly accumulating losses. The cupcakes haven’t exactly been cupcakes for the Spartans. Michigan State beat Florida Gulf Coast by one, Wichita State (not a cupcake but a team Michigan State should annually be expected to handle) by five, Oral Roberts by four and Tennessee Tech by eight.

There are reasons to be hopeful, though.

The typically menacing Big Ten schedule starts out favorably for the Spartans with their first five games coming against Minnesota, Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Minnesota. Three of those games will be played in East Lansing and only one is a true road game.

And there is a template for non-conference struggles blossoming into Big Ten contender status. Just look back to last season’s Wisconsin team, which went 8-5 in its non-conference schedule and lost four of its first five conference games only to rattle off wins in its next seven games and 11 of its next 12. The Badgers reached the Sweet 16 and entered this season as the conference favorite.

Of course, that kind of story requires a midseason turnaround, something the Spartans seem to be in desperate need of right now. It can be done. This is Izzo, after all.

“This was a setback,” Izzo said, “but I’ve had setbacks before.”

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

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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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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.