Big Ten

Wisconsin, which seemed to be the Big Ten's best, now loser of two straight after upset defeat at Michigan

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USA TODAY

Wisconsin, which seemed to be the Big Ten's best, now loser of two straight after upset defeat at Michigan

Heading into last weekend, Wisconsin had lost just once since Thanksgiving.

But Thursday night in Ann Arbor, the Badgers dropped their second straight, making you wonder if maybe the NCAA tournament knew what it was doing by leaving them out of its top 16 seeds.

Michigan scored its biggest win of the season and boosted its own tourney hopes with a 64-58 win over Wisconsin, Moritz Wagner and Zak Irvin combining for 39 points in the victory.

Again, the Badgers struggled offensively, shooting just 39 percent from the field on the night and failing to reach the 30-point mark in the second half. Wisconsin was 9-for-29 from the field in the second half and 3-for-15 from 3-point range on the game.

Ethan Happ, who was shut down in Wisconsin's home loss to Northwestern on Sunday, scored 18 points in the first half but just four after halftime. Bronson Koenig didn't play Thursday night, and Nigel Hayes had a pretty quiet night offensively, scoring just six points.

Wisconsin beat Michigan on second-chance points 10-2 and in points in the paint 36-24. But the cold shooting meant those statistical advantages were nowhere near enough.

The Wolverines shot 46 percent on the night and made nine 3-pointers. Wagner and Irvin alone were a combined 14-for-26 from the field and 5-for-11 from 3. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman chipped in 12 points.

The Badgers led by as many as eight early in the second half, but a 12-4 spurt by the Wolverines tied the game at 42. Shortly thereafter a 9-0 burst turned a modest Wisconsin lead in a seven-point edge for Michigan, and the Wolverines led for the remainder.

The win was a huge one for Michigan and ought to go a long way on getting the Wolverines — now 17-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten — on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.

Questions about Wisconsin's less-than-dominant performances in overtime wins against the likes of Minnesota, Rutgers and Nebraska have now turned into full-blown panic for a team that as recently as this past weekend looked like the Big Ten's best chance to contend for a national championship. Two straight losses will strip the Badgers of that distinction, with the conference's best title hopes likely belonging to Purdue or perhaps even Maryland for the time being.

The offensive production has been the biggest problem in recent games for Wisconsin. The absence of Koenig — be it physically or just statistically — and the inconsistent production of Hayes, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, have put an awful lot on Happ's shoulders. And even a 22-point effort Thursday night wasn't enough.

Since the Badgers and Wolverines last tangled on Jan. 17 — a 68-64 win for Wisconsin — the past nine games have been offensively challenging for the red and white. They've averaged 66.4 points a game and have shot a combined 41 percent from the field. That stretch, during which Wisconsin has posted a 7-2 record, has featured just two games with more than 25 made baskets and two games with fewer than 20 made baskets.

The college basketball season has its ebbs and flows, sure. Last season, Wisconsin started conference play 1-4 before rattling off a seven-game win streak, wins in 11 of its final 13 regular-season games and a run to the Sweet Sixteen.

But the difference between the bad times this year and the bad times this year is that these bad times are coming at the worst time, down the stretch.

The selection committee didn't think Wisconsin was one of the 16 best teams in the country last Saturday. Since the Badgers have gone 0-2, so don't expect to committee to think any better of them this weekend.

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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