Big Ten

Who are these Illini? Good times keep rolling for orange and blue in Indy


Who are these Illini? Good times keep rolling for orange and blue in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS — The Illini are 2-for-2 in this year's Big Ten Tournament.

Just days after Lovie Smith was hired as Illinois' head football coach.

As Peter Venkman might have added were he posed with this scenario as recently as a week ago: "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!"

An unexpected two-game stretch of success isn't exactly pigs flying, but it certainly makes you raise your eyebrow and say, "Who are these Illini?"

In two games here in Indy, Illinois has appeared a new team. The Illini walloped Minnesota by 33 on Wednesday, the largest margin of victory ever in a Big Ten Tournament game. Thursday, the Illini took down fifth-seeded Iowa, pulling out the win despite a late Hawkeye run that erased an 11-point lead. Illinois has looked good on offense. Illinois has looked good on defense. And that means two wins and a season that has continued longer than many believed it could have.

"We wanted to play the right way offensively," head coach John Groce said. "And defensively we just wanted to play ridiculously hard and compete together. And I thought that our guys did a great job of that, and they really embraced those things for a second day. So we have an opportunity to live another day and move our name to the next line on the bracket."

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini advance again in Big Ten Tournament with upset of Hawkeyes]

But the question is, with Illinois looking like a new team, this: Is this in fact a squad with a totally different approach from the one that finished the regular season at 13-18 overall and just 5-13 in the Big Ten or is it the culmination of a challenging season and things finally coming together?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a little bit of both.

Groce has talked a lot about "Season 3" over the past two days and the clean-slate approach that he wanted his team taking into the Big Ten Tournament following a disappointing regular season. But while athletes and coaches always want to focus on things one game at a time, it's impossible to completely block out the past, especially one like the Illini had, one that tested them through an inordinate amount of injuries as well as an inordinate amount of losing.

So Groce called it an evolution, this mix of a new attitude and applying the lessons of this campaign. Whatever you want to call it, it's worked.

"I think it's an evolution," Groce said. "Our team has really grown throughout the year. And they have been through a lot. And I think that's well documented. I think the one thing that we talked about was this being a fresh start.

"It's obvious that we're more connected with this current rendition our team that evolved throughout the season. Some of the things that evolved from were a little bit unforeseen or out of our control. So I think it's very important you play the cards that you're dealt to the best of your ability."

[MORE BIG TEN: Collins riled by no call at end of regulation in Northwestern loss]

It didn't look like Illinois was making much progress as the regular season wore on. The Illini were routinely beat up by the conference's big boys, including Iowa, which delivered a double-digit defeat just last month. But with the way things have gone in two days in Indy, progress is suddenly noticeable. Jalen Coleman-Lands has been excellent, scoring 30 points in these two games. Maverick Morgan, once viewed as simply the only player with any kind of size to fill in for two injured starting big men, scored in double figures on Thursday after nine points on Wednesday and has been a strong contributor over the back stretch of the season. Kendrick Nunn has been hot-and-cold all year but went for 31 points in the wins over Minnesota and Iowa.

All that production even masked what was one of Malcolm Hill's worst games of the season. One of the Big Ten's best scorers and Illinois' best player, Hill scored just six points and turned the ball over five times Thursday. But he also hit the game-winning shot. The difference is that he's had help the last two games, something that was quite the rarity on the season as a whole.

The key? According to Groce, these guys fighting through the woeful regular season and taking their lumps along the way has finally culminated in the way they want to be playing.

"I feel like we have learned a lot, and it has brought us a lot closer," Coleman-Lands said. "With that being said, I feel like now we have a clean slate. We can actually put to use what we learned throughout the season. And everybody being 0-0, we have a clean slate to show people that."

"We have worked hard," Morgan said. "Even if we didn't get necessarily get the result we wanted as far as our record or how we did in league play, we didn't let that discourage us and didn't stop working hard. We did that every day regardless, and I think it's starting to show now, which is great."

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

Will it be this new Illinois team for a third straight day on Friday? It's an even tougher test, against Purdue, but the Illini did beat the Boilermakers earlier this season. If Illinois can be the team that knocked down 26 3-pointers and forced 33 turnovers in two games, you'd think it could hang with any opponent.

The "what" has been astonishing, as Illinois has looked its best at the last possible moment this season. The "how" has been less obvious but perhaps even more important, as the Illini appear to have emerged from the cocoon of what still seems to be lost season, though even that's something that could change if the Illini keep advancing in Indy. They're not there yet, as their coach said Thursday, but they're in a much different place than they were.

"I think some guys are getting a little bit mentally tougher," Groce said. "So we haven't arrived by any means. We still have a long ways to go. But we have gotten a lot better in a lot of areas. And I'm happy — and sometimes the game doesn't honor that with a win, you know. Like, I thought we played our tails off the last 20 minutes (of the regular-season finale against Penn State) in State College, but we didn't win the game. But we played our tails off here the next 80, and the outcome went in our favor.

"So more than anything, I'm happy for those guys, because I think it gives them some validation for all of their efforts and their ability to persevere."

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?