Big Ten

Yeah it was Gophers, but Illini's best game of season comes at good time


Yeah it was Gophers, but Illini's best game of season comes at good time

INDIANAPOLIS — Illinois’ stay in Indy might not last super long. But it will at least last another day following an 85-52 thrashing of Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon.

It was all Illini practically from start to finish, as they outscored the Gophers by 16 in the first half and by 17 in the second half. The lead got as big as 37 at one point as defensive dominance of a depleted Minnesota group allowed Illinois’ terrific 14-for-26 3-point shooting to stand out even more.

It was a performance that saw contributions from nearly everyone that stepped on the court, one that advanced Illinois to a Thursday game against Iowa and one that head coach John Groce called his team’s best of the season.

“I think it matters how you play, and today was probably the best we’ve played all season,” Groce said. “We wanted to play well. We wanted to have a fresh mindset. I thought the most important thing was to be unselfish offensively, to compete defensively. We did those things. We played well today. Now, tomorrow’s game is an entirely different game. You’ve got to go back out and do it again. Every game’s different. But for today, the guys played to our standards today, and that part was pleasing.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini advance to Day 2 with blowout win over lowly Gophers]

Pleasing is probably putting it mildly considering Groce hasn’t seen many games like this one in an otherwise disappointing campaign. The Illini played on Day 1 of the Big Ten Tournament for a reason.

And sure, it was Minnesota, a team Illinois beat twice during the regular season. The Gophers’ season has been an atrocious one featuring dismissals, suspensions and a whole heck of a lot of losing. Just twice during Big Ten play did Minnesota walk off the court a winner.

But there’s something to be said about the Illini figuring things out as the lights flicker on their 2015-16 campaign. Wednesday’s 33-point win was Illinois’ largest over a Big Ten opponent in eight years.

Take Michael Finke, who’d been mired in a long slump. He knocked down five 3-pointers on Wednesday after going 0-for-10 from deep in his previous four games. Malcolm Hill, who’s been one of the Big Ten’s best players this season and has carried Illinois on his back through the majority of the year, finally got plenty of assistance from Kendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands, who have both been streaky and kind of hit-or-miss.

That kind of team-wide performance has been a rarity this season. Wednesday, Illinois got it at a good time.

[MORE BIG TEN: Which team is most likely to win the Big Ten Tournament?]

“That was good for us,” Nunn said. “Coming into the tournament, we wanted to come in with a fresh mindset. The records and things like that, out the window. We wanted to play for 40 minutes, and I think we did that for the majority of the time tonight.”

“I think we literally got contributions from everybody that played,” Hill said. “That’s something that we can carry for tomorrow.”

Groce divides the season into chunks, as many coaches in sports do, and for an Illini team that’s found little in the way of success for the majority of what Groce dubs “Season 1” and “Season 2” — the non-conference portion of the regular-season schedule and the 18 regular-season Big Ten games — starting “Season 3” off with such a strong showing can only be good going forward. However long forward might last.

“We really set out as ‘Season 3’ started with a fresh mindset over the last couple days,” Groce said. “Our goal was to play the right way offensively. Obviously today we had 32 field goals, 19 of them were assisted. Ball movement was tremendous. And then defensively, we wanted to play ridiculously hard. So really that gave us a chance to move our name to the next line on the bracket. We were more concerned with improving from how we played last week. I thought we did that, I was encouraged by that. I was proud of their unselfishness, I was proud of their effort on the defensive end.”

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

Yeah, it was one game against a bad team, but it was a good performance that could energize the Illini not just for Thursday’s game against Iowa or any potential games that lie beyond but for next season, which is shaping up to be a make-or-break campaign for Groce and his tenure as Illinois’ head coach. If he can point to a positive end to this lost season, perhaps that makes a big difference for 2016-17.

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that Groce & Co. are focused on one thing: Thursday’s game against Iowa.

“We expect that, we want to do that. We want to continue to get better as the season moves along,” Groce said. “It’s challenging when your roster changes quite a bit throughout a season. But with this current rendition, I think it’s the best that this group has played together, for sure. Obviously that should give them some confidence.

“They’re smart enough to know that today doesn’t give you any privileges for tomorrow. You’ve got to bring it again tomorrow. You’ve got to compete again tomorrow. You’ve got to compete on the backboard, spring, talk, communicate, move the ball. We’ve got to do it again well. Every day and every game is different. We’ll have our hands full tomorrow.”

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?