Local college hoops 2016-17 preview: Illinois State

Associated Press

Local college hoops 2016-17 preview: Illinois State

2015-16 results: Illinois State finished tied for second-place in the Missouri Valley Conference last season as they were 18-14 and 12-6 in the league. But the Redbirds ended the season in disappointing fashion, losing three out of four games, including their opening game of Arch Madness. The losses to Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Indiana State showed a program that is still one step away from being among the Valley's elite.

Players to watch: Senior guard Paris Lee returns to lead Illinois State as he remains one of the best two-way guards in the conference. The former Proviso East product averaged 11.1 points, 3.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game as a junior. Junior forwards MiKyle McIntosh (10.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Deontae Hawkins (10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) also returns and that trio gives Illinois State one of the best core groups in the Valley this season.

[RELATED: Local college hoops 2016-17 preview - Loyola]

Key storylines: Finding a big man could be a huge key to this season as the Redbirds have plenty of capable guards, wings and forwards. A healthy sophomore year from 7-footer David Ndiaye should help with that problem.

Newcomers to track: Two junior college transfers should help provide depth this season. Phil Fayne is a 6-foot-9 forward with three years of eligibility left as he shot 62 percent from the floor at Western Nebraska Community College. Junior D.J. Clayton is a 6-foot-6 wing who gives additional scoring as well.

Season outlook: With a strong trio of leaders and reinforcements providing depth, Illinois State is looking to make the postseason in 2016-17, with the hope being to compete for a NCAA tournament spot. The reign of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker is over as Wichita State tries to transition into a new era and Northern Iowa lost plenty of talent from an NCAA tournament team as well so it could be an interesting year in the Valley.

Loyola, Valpo showdown in a big game early in the MVC schedule


Loyola, Valpo showdown in a big game early in the MVC schedule

Loyola battles Valparaiso in a Missouri Valley Conference clash that airs on NBC Sports Chicago Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

The Ramblers (10-7, 3-1) are fighting for the top spot in the Valley with the Crusaders (11-6, 4-0) as the top two teams in the conference play an important early league game.

Coming off of an important home win over Illinois State on Saturday, the Ramblers are hoping to make another move by taking a crack at the Valley's only unbeaten team. Veterans Marques Townes, Clayton Custer and Cameron Krutwig are all having strong seasons for Loyola as the Ramblers attempt to position themselves for another potential NCAA tournament bid.

Valparaiso has put together a strong five-game winning streak, including a good road win at Southern Illinois over the weekend. The Crusaders have a balanced group of scorers, led by forward Ryan Fazekas, and center Derrik Smits -- the son of former Indiana Pacers center Rik Smits.

These two teams will also play on Feb. 10 as the Ramblers will make a trip to Valpo for the rematch. For now, this matchup could provide an indication of the team to beat in the Valley.

Northwestern mounts huge comeback, beats Utah in Holiday Bowl; Thorson, Fitzgerald heading to NFL next?


Northwestern mounts huge comeback, beats Utah in Holiday Bowl; Thorson, Fitzgerald heading to NFL next?

It was a tale of two halves for Northwestern in Monday's Holiday Bowl.

After entering halftime trailing Utah 20-3, Northwestern mounted a huge second half comeback to knock off the Utes 31-20. Northwestern, which outscored Utah 28-0 in the third quarter, finishes the 2018 season 9-5 record.

Northwestern was just 3-of-14 on third down, though they forced six Utah turnovers (two interceptions) highlighted by an 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown by safety/linebacker Jared McGee.

Six turnovers forced is the most by Northwestern since Oct. 3, 2009 against Purdue, when the Wildcats also forced six turnovers.

Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson — who tore his right ACL on Dec. 29, 2017 in the Music City Bowl — finished 21-of-30 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. However, Thorson exited the game late in the fourth quarter after going down awkwardly near Utah's sideline.

Thorson is one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft. 

The win improves Northwestern's all-time bowl game record to 5-10. However, they have now three-straight bowl games; from the 1948-2012 seasons, they won two bowl games — the 1949 Rose Bowl and the 2013 Gator Bowl.

One of the biggest questions facing Northwestern is the future of head coach Pat Fitzgerald. According to a report, the Green Bay Packers are expected to request an interview with Fitzgerald for their head coaching vacancy.

Unlike Thorson, Fitzgerald leaving for the NFL is no guarantee. If he does leave, however, Fitzgerald would leave with the most all-time regular season wins (95) and bowl wins (4) in Northwestern history.

Fitzgerald's .576 winning percentage would also be best all-time by a Northwestern head coach, minimum five seasons. 

Fans likely will anxiously wait for news regarding Fitzgerald's future. Overall, though, fans should be appreciative of the job he has done into turning Northwestern into one of the better football programs in the Big Ten.

UPDATE: Here's what Fitzgerald said about his future after the game.