Big Ten looks to put ugly 1st half behind it


Big Ten looks to put ugly 1st half behind it

Shortly after Northwestern survived an ugly performance to beat Minnesota on Saturday and improve to 6-1, two officials sat down in the postgame press conference wearing yellow Fiesta Bowl jackets.

With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason and the Big Ten not having a team currently ranked in the BCS standings, the representatives from one of the premier bowls in the country were asked what interest they had in the Wildcats and Golden Gophers.

``We also have the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl,'' one of them said.

That sounds about right.

The college football season has turned the corner to the second half, and no one is more pleased to put the first half behind than those in the maligned Big Ten.

For a conference that was already being characterized as inferior to the likes of the SEC and Big 12, 2012 couldn't have started much worse for the Big Ten. Ohio State and Penn State - two of the conference's marquee programs - had no shot for postseason play from the get-go because of NCAA sanctions.

Then one of its biggest hopefuls to restore pride to the conference - Michigan - was routed by Alabama in the season opener. The embarrassments kept coming: Iowa losing at home to Iowa State and Central Michigan; Wisconsin had close shaves at home against Northern Iowa and Utah State; and Michigan State was thumped by Notre Dame.

The second half of the season allows the Big Ten to find its collective footing and try to build some momentum toward the bowls, and there are some signs it's happening. Iowa and Michigan are 2-0 in the conference, Northwestern just keeps finding ways to win and Wisconsin appears to have righted itself and gotten back to its power-running ways.

``Early in the year you're just kind of getting into position,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ``The No. 1 goal for everybody is to win their conference. You're starting to hit that stretch. Just about everyone has six games left. You want to be starting to hit your peak. That's the challenge.''

The Badgers appeared lost over the first three weeks, unable to get Montee Ball and the ground game going, sweating out close home wins over lesser opponents and losing 10-7 at Oregon State. Coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the first game, and the big guys up front have responded in impressive fashion.

Last week, Ball racked up 247 yards in a win over Purdue. Now, with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the Badgers are in position to represent the Leaders Division.

``We made some fairly significant changes that at the time when we made those choices we knew our guys would have to battle through and endure,'' Bielema said. ``And our players have been able to do that.''

If any team could use a fresh start it's Purdue. The Boilermakers started the season with high expectations but they've been hammered in back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Wisconsin, raising questions about coach Danny Hope's job security.

If anything has gone right for the conference this season, it has happened in Columbus, Ohio and State College, Pa. Penn State has somehow weathered the incredible nightmare of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal and Joe Paterno's subsequent death, winning four of the first six games, including their first two in the conference.

Coach Bill O'Brien has the defense playing like the stingy Nittany Lions' units of old, giving weary fans a reason for optimism going forward.

``If you just watch the tape you see coach O'Brien's impact,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. ``He's a tremendous coach.''

Urban Meyer isn't so bad himself, and his first season at Ohio State is off to a roaring start. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and ranked seventh, joining 23rd-ranked Michigan as the only Big Ten teams in The Associated Press Top 25.

Quarterback Braxton Miller has emerged as one of the best players in the nation and Meyer is already showing dividends on the recruiting trail.

``He understands the offense and manages the offense much better this year,'' Hope said of Miller. ``He's a fantastic athlete and a great competitor and there's nothing he can't do.''

Of course, much of the improvement several of these teams have shown could be coming because they're playing other mediocre teams in the conference.

Then again, better days could be on the horizon. Even after what many would consider a subpar Big Ten season last year, the Wolverines still came away with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

And no matter how well things go for Iowa in the second half, Ferentz won't allow his Hawkeyes to forget the struggles of the first month.

``We went through a very, very tough loss and we deserved it. The team we lost to played better,'' Ferentz said of Central Michigan. ``That's not that far in our rearview mirror and that's a good reminder what kind of a team we are. We really have to do everything perfect and that's darn near impossible.''


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John Tortorella ‘embarrassed’ by Columbus’ one-sided loss to the Capitals


John Tortorella ‘embarrassed’ by Columbus’ one-sided loss to the Capitals

Before the Capitals dominated the Detroit Red Wings at Capital One Arena on Tuesday, they stopped off in Columbus on Saturday for what was expected to be a great game between the top two teams of the Metropolitan Division.

It wasn’t.

Instead of two heavy-weights trading blows or the Columbus Blue Jackets going after the Capitals in an attempt to exact some measure of revenge for last season’s playoff loss, Washington blew apart Columbus in a one-sided, 4-0 affair.

As you could imagine, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was displeased with the result and sounded off on Monday in typical Tortorella fashion.

"I'm embarrassed as the coach of this team," Tortorella told reporters, according to The Athletic's Aaron Portzline. "I missed something along the way. I'm part of it also. I'm embarrassed that we embarrassed our organization."

The Caps took control of Saturday’s game early with three goals in the first period. The physical battle that had been the trademark of last season’s playoff series never came. Washington pushed and received no pushback from a Columbus team that looked like a shadow of the team that had jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over the Caps.

"It was disgusting," Tortorella said. "After our last home game, that debacle, 9-6 [loss to Calgary], to show up on a Saturday night for first-place seeding, against a team that knocked us out of the playoffs, in front of a full house, it's embarrassing."

The Blue Jackets seem to be reeling a bit of late. On Dec. 4, Columbus coughed up a 4-1 lead allowing five goals in the second period to the Calgary Flames in what turned into a 9-6 loss. A narrow overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday was followed by the blowout loss to the Caps and on Tuesday, Columbus allowed two goals in a span of 1:18 late in the third period that turned a 2-1 victory into a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks.

Washington and Columbus have been locked in a standings battle the last few weeks (and years) with both teams vying for supremacy over the Metropolitan Division. Now, the Caps hold a five-point lead for first place in a division that seems to be rapidly declining. At mid-December, we are still waiting to see if another team can emerge to push Washington late in the season in a battle for first place in the division. A contender has yet to emerge and, the longer the season goes, the less likely it seems that someone will.


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When it comes to Wall vs. Kyrie debate, Stephen A. Smith believes Irving is 'just on another level'

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When it comes to Wall vs. Kyrie debate, Stephen A. Smith believes Irving is 'just on another level'

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After the Los Angeles Lakers selected Magic Johnson first overall in the 1979 NBA Draft, only one point guard (Allen Iverson) went No. 1 before the Washington Wizards snagged John Wall in 2010. Kyrie Irving’s selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers the following season turned an anomaly into a trend. A rivalry was born, debates began.

Fan bases and ardent backers made valid points and outlandish claims for their guy and against the other. This continued even after Irving joined the Celtics in 2017 and as physical ailments limited both players.

Entering the latest showdown, the head-to-head count read 8-8. Another thriller ensued. Irving took the win-loss lead from the speedy Wall Wednesday with a magical overtime performance in Boston’s 130-125 win.

For Stephen A. Smith, Irving scoring 38 points including the Celtics’ final 12 didn’t nudge the Boston star ahead of Wall, who wowed with 34 points and 13 assists. It just helped shine a light on a gap that already existed.

“It was a nice matchup. John showed up to play. I thought he played well in the fourth quarter. Over time he got a little bit erratic. That’s to be understood going up against Kyrie. Kyrie is special. Kyrie is something special. He’s just a spectacular player,” the often outspoken ESPN analyst told NBC Sports Washington following the game.

“John Wall reminded you how talented he is,” Smith continued, “but in the process, he also reminded you there are levels to this. Kyrie is just on another level and there is no other way around that.”

That statement joins a list of bold commentary in the long-running Wall-Irving arguments. There are certain dynamics that back up this claim.

Wall racks up assists, but Irving laps him as a shooter. Both players are five-time All-Stars with a single All-NBA selection. Irving’s résumé also includes Olympic Gold for Team USA in 2016 and one of the biggest shots in league history. He sank the series-winning jumper for Cleveland in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Wizards, while improved recently compared to franchise norms, have not advanced beyond the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs since Wall's arrival.

“They’re very, very talented. There is no doubt about that,” Smith, who attended Wednesday’s contest, said of the guards.  “But in the same breath, they’re not on the same page. 

"John Wall is a tremendous, tremendous talent. His success is predicated on his ability to get to the basket, his athleticism, his conditioning. He came into this season he was clearly not in ideal shape. He was heavier than he usually is. He’s never really, really truly improved that jump shot.”

Irving’s heroics Wednesday included two 3-pointers in the final minute, one a go-ahead bomb with 17.3 seconds remaining. Wall missed the second of Washington two game-tying attempts from beyond the arc on the next possession.

“When you look at Kyrie Irving, how did he stick the dagger in you? Long 3’s,” Smith said. “Now, John can do that from time to time, but you can’t rely on him to do it. When he makes those shots you say, ‘Thank God.’ When Kyrie makes those shots you say, ‘Yeah, that’s what he’s supposed to do because that’s what he does.’

“A perfect example is that the game is waning, you’re in overtime. (Wizards guard) Bradley Beal misses a 3-pointer. You’re John Wall. You get the ball back. You launch a three when you should have got it back to Bradley Beal because he’s the shooter. That’s not what you do, but that’s what John Wall did. Again, that’s the kind of thing you look at.”

Wall’s primary statistics this season – 21.0 points, 8.5 assists – are worthy of All-Star consideration. His overall game is more under the microscope than usual because of the Wizards’ slow start and his four-year, $170 million contract extension that tips off next season.

“You look at [Wall] as a big-time talent. Somebody who I felt was worthy of his money considering the fact that it’s not like you can go out and get Kevin Durant or somebody like that. In the same breath, you’re looking for him to improve upon the game that he already has, not to bring you back the same old, same old,” Smith said.

“Unfortunately, that’s what you’re seeing right now. You’re seeing a guy who is a big-time talent, who can ball, but who is giving you nothing different or nothing better than what he’s been giving you, and that hasn’t been good enough to get this team to the next level. That’s where you have a problem if you’re the Washington Wizards.”