Big Ten

Undermanned Gophers had little chance down season's stretch


Undermanned Gophers had little chance down season's stretch

INDIANAPOLIS — "I feel bad for the guys that played in the game."

Richard Pitino confronted the realities of his team's miserable 2015-16 campaign shortly after it ended Wednesday. Minnesota was hammered by Illinois in an 85-52 decision, a loss made so one-sided by the fact that the Gophers were playing with one of the most undermanned rosters in college basketball.

A crush of dismissals, suspensions and injuries left Pitino with a small number of players actually able to take the floor in the Big Ten Tournament, and it made for the latest embarrassing loss in a season full of them.

Minnesota was suffocated by Illinois' defense, shooting just 39.2 percent on the night and turning the ball over 15 times. And it couldn't keep up with the Illini on the other end, either, as Illinois shot 55.2 percent on the game and splashed home a tournament-record 14 3-pointers.

And it all stemmed from one big thing: a total lack of depth.

"That was quite an uphill battle," Pitino said after the game. "And it was extremely challenging to play like that. So many reasons why it was difficult, just from an offensive standpoint and not really having any guards, to a defensive standpoint and not having any depth, being scared to foul, being tired. I mean, there were so many things that were going to be a recipe for a difficult night."

[MORE BIG TEN: Yeah it was Gophers, but Illini's best game of season comes at good time]

Carlos Morris was dismissed from the team earlier this season. Three players were recently suspended for posting sex videos to social media. Joey King broke his foot.

It all made for a depleted roster that had no answer Wednesday or in regular-season losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Rutgers.

King's injury was uncontrollable, and Morris' dismissal came before the Gophers' two Big Ten wins this season. But the three recent suspensions were crushing and Pitino's knew it when he did it. He knew it would make his team significantly hampered for the closing stretch of this season, but he did it anyway for the long-term good of his program, something he reiterated after Wednesday's defeat.

"I felt for our guys," Pitino said. "After the (regular-season) Illinois game, I said it, and I believed it, that we made some decisions that were going to hurt our team in the short term. And we made some decisions that were going to affect wins and losses.

"It's just a couple weeks ago where we were extremely excited about where we were going. We were starting to understand what our identity as a team would be. We were starting to defend. We were starting to play well. Even in the losses, we were very, very close.

"Then when you have an incident where you got to make tough decisions, we did it. And we did it with the culture of our program in mind. We did it understanding that it would be extremely difficult to win. But we felt like it was the right thing moving forward."

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

Whether it was the right call remains to be seen. Of course, there wasn't much of a chance of Minnesota making some kind of surprise run at the end of the year or challenging for a championship in the conference tournament. The losses had piled up long before the suspensions.

But Pitino saw his team turning a corner. So did John Groce, for that matter, the Illinois head coach saying the same things Pitino did in his own postgame comments Wednesday. Pitino's decisions meant the Gophers never got to turn that corner. But next season, Pitino hopes and believes, could be a different story.

"That doesn't deter how excited I am about the future of this program. And I am. I really am," Pitino said. "I mean, I look at what we've got sitting out. I look at the recruiting class. I look at the young talent in our program. And I got a lot to be excited about. So nothing has really changed in that regard.

"I think it's going to be good for everybody to take a deep breath and get away a little bit, because it was tough losing the amount of close games that we lost. And then to break through and then have the rug pulled out from under you, where we had to make some tough decisions to suspend some guys. You know what, though, I thought everybody saw what we were becoming. And then, obviously, you have to make some tough decisions and it kind of deters you a little bit. But I think once we take a deep breath and everybody gathers themselves, we're still going to be pretty excited about next year."

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


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?