Big Ten

Is this the year Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament?

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Is this the year Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament?

Until it happens, it will continue to be the main question asked before every Northwestern basketball season: Is this the year the Wildcats finally make the NCAA tournament?

It’s been a long, long time for Cats fans to wait to see their purple-clad players play deep into March, with the program’s all-time NCAA tournament appearance total still sitting at an unbelievable zero.

But with the Chris Collins Era entering Year 3, the momentum continues to build. A few years ago, asking if the Cats would make the NCAA tournament was asking a question you already knew the answer to. Now, it’s a serious part of the annual discussion, perhaps the best sign that Collins is truly building something to be proud of in Evanston.

“I've been asked about it a lot, and it's nice that people feel like we're on an upward trajectory, that it's even in the discussion,” Collins said Thursday during Big Ten basketball media day. “We don't talk about it a lot with our guys, but I think coming into the season, we did talk about the fact that it's not on this current team's shoulders to feel the pressure day in and day out of playing for however many years it's been of going to the NCAA tournament. If you start doing that, then you're not going to be successful.

“I want these guys to enjoy the journey they have together. We have to take it each step — I know it's cliché and I don't like that, but you have to take each season as it comes along. If we start putting our heads in the clouds and thinking about March, we're going to be really disappointed when that time comes because there's so much between now and then.

“I think there's a confidence in our program right now. I think there's a belief we can be a good team. I like that. And certainly my goal every year I've ever played basketball or been part of college basketball as a player or coach has been to be in the NCAA tournament. If that's not my goal, then I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I've said it all along. For me, it's a matter of when that happens, not if. That's the confidence level that I think we all share. So it would be great if it was this year.”

It very well could be. Collins has what might be the best Northwestern team in a very long time. Between experienced and productive veterans like Tre Demps and Alex Olah and the young guys Collins has brought in himself like sophomores Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law and this year’s duo of hyped freshmen, Jordan Ash and Aaron Falzon, there’s plenty of reason to be excited.

Over the first two years of the Collins Era, the Cats have had flashes of brilliance. Two seasons ago, there was the stretch of five wins in seven games, a stretch that featured conference road wins at Wisconsin and Indiana. Last season, the Cats lost 10 Big Ten games in a row, but five in a row were lost by an average of 3.4 points. Then, Collins switched up the defense, and the Cats won four in a row and five of six.

The destination is March, but the journey obviously starts far earlier. For Northwestern, what happens in March depends on what’s happening right now in October.

“What we get in March will be indicative of what we do right now and how we prepare right now and building those habits every single day,” Demps said Thursday. “Coach talks about every single day of practice we want to win. After practice, we come into that huddle and coach lets us know if we won that day or not. And our goal is to win every single day.”

Demps was here before Collins arrived. He’s seen first hand the difference Collins has made and the improvement he’s sparked in the program. Both Demps and Olah said that their personal confidence levels have risen as a result of Collins being here. The same goes for the confidence level of the team as a whole.

“I think the sky’s the limit for us. I think that we have enough talent to compete with anybody in the country,” Demps said. “We kind of have to have that attitude but at the same time having a poor man’s attitude that we have to earn everything we get and just trying to be a blue-collar team.

“Coach has done an unbelievable job just changing the culture around here. And just how guys have evolved and the desire for guys who want to be really good players: We have guys on our team that want to be pros. And the players that coach has recruited, I think it’s been a complete transformation, and I think it’s really going to benefit this program and university in the long run.”

The long run is what Collins is building toward, but the short term is what most people will be focusing on. The focus is on 2016 and if this is the season that finally ends with an invitation to the Big Dance. It’s the next logical step for a program that’s been moving in the right direction under Collins.

“I think the main thing we're trying to do is make a step forward,” he said. “I think our progression the last two years has been good. And it would be nice to keep going that way."

As Collins walked off the stage Thursday, he shouted to the audience of reporters, “Go Cubs!” It was a nice reminder that Collins’ hometown team is still alive in baseball’s postseason.

Not long ago, it would’ve been crazy to see the Cubs in the NLCS, as crazy as seeing Northwestern in the NCAA tournament. One down, one to go.

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

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USA TODAY

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?