Cheer up, lad. It’s the best of times at Northwestern. And Illini get their man, under-the-radar Underwood.

Somebody needs to find that kid. You know, the one in Northwestern gear who seemed to think the Wildcats had come to bodily harm rather than abuse by Gonzaga and by referees failing to see an obvious goal-tending call. Yes, Northwestern lost in wrenching fashion Saturday, when a powerful comeback was stalled by the missed goal-tending call, and the insult-to-injury technical call on Chris Collins for trying to point out the obvious. Would the Wildcats have won if the goal-tending call had been made? We’ll never know. It sure would have been nice to find out. But somebody needs to find that kid and tell him this was great stuff by Collins and the Wildcats, who made their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance by proving they belonged. They were tough, beating Vanderbilt and regrouping from a 22-point deficit to give Gonzaga a real scare. They were as entertaining as could be. And they return a core of players that promises to give them another NCAA shot very quickly—like next year. So relax, young man. No matter how devastated you were by the Gonzaga setback, you should know that this is the absolute best of times for Northwestern basketball. @@@ NEW ILLINI HOOPS COACH   Brad Underwood, who bolted from Oklahoma State after just one year, looks like a promising hire as Illinois’ new coach. The rest of this article is available to...

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Big Ten Takeaways: Can anyone make Indiana great again?

Everything you always wanted to know about Indiana, but—well, everything I know about Indiana. But first. . . Ten days ago, I gave you four Big Ten coaches to keep an eye on. Since then, two of them, John Groce and Tom Crean, have been fired. The other two? I wondered if Thad Matta might yield to chronic back troubles, and what Chris Collins would do if someone threw an insane amount of money his way. We’ll see about Matta. But I would advise my friend, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, to ask Julia Louis-Dreyfus if she’s prepared to put her checkbook where her dancing shoes are. And now. . . what about Indiana? Because there’s trouble in Hoosierland. Again. Indiana is a tricky place. Because a short list of the greatest basketball programs in America includes Indiana alongside Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke. (I won’t object if you want to include others. But these are mine.) Here’s the thing about Indiana: Historically, it is the best basketball program in the best basketball state. But that’s long history. In the last 30-plus years, IU has been messy. At times, really messy. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Midwest Regional: If not Kansas, Louisville Cardinals rule

Midwest Regional Outlook:  All eyes will be on Kansas. Because the Jayhawks, despite their Big 12 tourney flop, have been been a No. 1 seed candidate and serious national-championship threat all season. They’re in a region that suits them, until that potential 1-2 matchup with Louisville. Home-court advantage favors the Jayhawks. But the rugged ACC has left Louisville battle-tested. In the first round, well-coached No. 12 Nevada has all the ingredients to surprise No. 5 Iowa State. And No. 11 Rhode Island promises to be a handful for No. 6 Creighton, which has gone 7-8 since Maurice Watson’s January knee injury. Miami-Michigan State and Michigan-Oklahoma State are a pair of first-round squeakers that could go down to the last possession. The Wolverines, winners of the Big Ten tournament, are on a roll since their airport runway scare. And Tom Izzo doesn’t miss many tricks in March. Upset Specials: Nevada over Iowa State, Rhode Island over Creighton. Moving to Kansas City: Kansas, Purdue, Rhode Island, Louisville Regional champ:...

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Snubbed Badgers should thank committee—for putting a #B1G chip on their shoulder

Ordinarily, I have this rule for teams who don’t like their seed or their ranking, or any of that other subjective stuff: Shut up and play. It’s going to be difficult for me not to break that rule on behalf of the outrageously snubbed Wisconsin Badgers. (Full disclosure: my undergraduate alma mater.) I am happy for my grad-school alma mater, Northwestern, which will make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance this year. It’s fitting that the Wildcats will play Vanderbilt in a matchup of two fine academic institutions—the Northwestern of the South vs. the Vandy of the North. It’s also fitting that the Wildcats will play in Salt Lake City, which had arcane liquor laws when I cared about that sort of thing, just like Evanston, home to the Northwestern campus and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But now, this forward-looking message: It’s going to be really interesting to see how the Big Ten fares in the NCAA bracket next year. In Chapter Two of Delany’s March to the Sea—Chapter One being the recently completed conquest of Washington, D.C.—the Big Ten will play its conference tournament a week early in 2018, so that it can play in Madison Square Garden—and spread the gospel of Big Ten commandments to the Eastern heathen. And that will give the NCAA Selection Committee actual, you know, time to seed the Big Ten teams properly. The...

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Illini show need for change. Northwestern soaring. Big day at Big Ten tourney.

Quick takes from the first two days of the Big Ten tournament. . . ILLINOIS: I am reluctant to keep pounding on the John Groce situation. The facts are pretty clear. This is Illinois’ worst five-year stretch in Big Ten play in more than 40 years. The Illini are set to miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year, the longest drought in more than 40 years. On the other side of the coin, Groce has an excellent group of recruits coming in. And his teams have shown flashes. That, I believe, is an argument against him. Consistency matters. Never mind Illini Nation. While watching the messy efforts at Rutgers last weekend and against Michigan on Thursday, I couldn’t but think that these players deserve better. . . coaching. It’s not that Groce is terrible. He’s a good coach who will do well in his next job, whether he’s an assistant at a major program or a head coach at a smaller school. He’s just not in the same league with John Beilein or any number of other Big Ten coaches. He may improve down the road. But coaching at the highest level of college basketball is a tricky deal. There are a lot of nuances involved. And Illinois needs to find someone who has mastered them. The Big Ten gobbles up coaches who haven’t done that. NORTHWESTERN:...

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NCAA tournament tales. . . No matter how bumpy, gotta love the road to the Final Four

When I first started out in the newspaper business, I had lofty goals. But after a few years on the desk, and then a few more years covering courts and fires and murders, I finally decided it was better to stick to fun and games. My switch to sports was a big deal. So big that the first NCAA tournament I covered was expanded to 64 teams. It was 1985. I was covering Notre Dame. I was rooting for the Irish to be sent to Salt Lake City, so I could sneak out a day early and catch some ski time at Alta or Snowbird. If not Salt Lake, I would have been fine with Albuquerque, home of the Albuquerque Journal, my first full-time newspaper job. Atlanta, Houston, Tulsa. . . heck, anywhere where there were frequent-flier miles involved and the promise of warmer weather. Where were the Irish sent? To. . . Notre Dame. That’s right. In those quaint days, teams could play on their home court. Allen Pinkett, the Notre Dame tailback, was a stats runner, bringing us fresh halftime box scores. To his badge, which said, “Runner,’’ legendary sports information director Roger Valdiserri had penned in the word, “Fast.’’ Even with that now-unthinkable home-court advantage, the seventh-seeded Irish lost their second-round matchup with No. 2 North Carolina. And so, my first NCAA tournament ended with nothing...

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Big Ten tournament picks to click. Illini Groce’d out? And 3 more coaches to keep an eye on.

A truck lost its load on Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway Wednesday morning, spreading lunch meat all over the pavement. Which is a great reminder that it’s time for the conference-tournament buffets. Be ready to swerve around frozen chicken patties when the NCAA tournament begins next week. For now, a few thoughts on Delany’s March to the Sea, aka the Big Ten tournament: HANDICAPPING THE  TOURNAMENT Anybody can pick Purdue. The Boilermakers are the Big Ten’s best team. They have Caleb Swanigan, who’s in the discussion (or ought to be) for national player of the year. They have Isaac Haas, who can get a job as a bad guy in a James Bond, Rocky or Harry Potter movie if the basketball thing doesn’t work out. And. . . back in the day when Stu Courtney was my boss, before he traded in his Bears’ gear for Packer green-and-gold, he used to kick back my brackets when I picked too much chalk. To this day, I pick too much junk. That said, I’m on the Golden Gophers bandwagon for Delany’s March to the Sea. When all is said and done at the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C. (!!!), I’m picking Minnesota to cut down the nets. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Greatest bang-bang day in Illinois hoops history: Northwestern punches NCAA ticket, Illini save Groce’s job.

This is why we watch. All things considered, Wednesday might be the greatest multi-game day in college-basketball history in the state of Illinois. Northwestern’s full-court buzzer beater over Michigan deserved all the attention it received. To complete an end-to-end pass to pretty much lock up the first NCAA tournament bid in school history? It doesn’t get any better than that. And yet, Illinois’ win over Michigan State was just as dramatic in its own way. It was a genuine tear-jerker. When coach John Groce was asked by BTN analyst Jon Crispin what his six seniors have meant, he got so choked up that he could barely utter four words: “A lot. . . a lot.’’ The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Big Ten Power Rankings: Gophers, Spartans, Wolverines on the rise

It was a tough week for many of the Big Ten’s top teams. But a good week for many bubble teams. BIG TEN POWER POWER RANKINGS BOBBING AND WEAVING 1, PURDUE (No. 1 in last ranking), 23-6, 12-4: Suspect perimeter? No problem. Still tracking for regular-season title in skittery Big Ten. FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE 2, MINNESOTA (No. 5), 22-7, 10-6: In a deep hole after five-game losings streak, Gophers have won seven in a row to emerge as perhaps the league’s most dangerous team heading into March. 3, MICHIGAN STATE (No. 6), 18-11, 10-6: Young Spartans have won four of five and are homing in on 20th straight NCAA bid, which had looked shaky for a while. It’s Tom Izzo. It’s March. We shouldn’t be surprised. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Northwestern & ’69 Cubs? Ouch. But wait. There’s still time to break up that pairing.

Wow. This Northwestern quest is starting to feel more and more like the ’69 Cubs. Woke up Sunday morning after that 63-62 heartbreaker at Indiana, trying to remember. Was that a dream? Or just a nightmare? Exactly when did that black cat run across the Assembly Hall court? The Wildcats built a 12-point first-half lead, and gave up 22 straight points—including a three-quarter-court halftime buzzer beater to be down 10 at the break. They bounced back for a seven-point lead with 93 seconds to play. And still lost. Had to delete—well, postpone—that congratulatory Tweet. It’s pretty clear that one more regular-season win the will give Northwestern its first NCAA bid in the history of the tournament. Even with two daunting regular-season games left, I still think they are going to make it. But with five losses in their last seven games, what once looked like a given now looks problematic. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Can Illini save Groce’s job? Has Northwestern derailed its NCAA trip?

Illinois’ win over Northwestern on Tuesday—its second vs. the Wildcats in four games—doesn’t change everything. But it changes a lot of things. Who knew? All of a sudden, Northwestern’s triumphant march toward its first-ever NCAA tournament is not a given. All of a sudden, the resurgent Illini, who have won three of their last four, have a faint glimmer of hope for their own NCAA bid. It would be the first in four years, since John Groce’s inaugural season. And it would likely slam the door on the clamor for Groce to be fired. Take that, you cynics who say the regular season doesn’t matter. First, Northwestern. . . There’s no doubt that the Wildcats are laboring under a Cub-like burden of expectations. While the North Siders were trying to end 108 years of World Series solitude, Chris Collins’ team, just a short ride away on the Purple Line, is aiming for its first NCAA trip since the tournament began in 1939. After the first shocking loss to Illinois, in Evanston on Feb. 7, Northwestern bounced back with an historic win at Wisconsin. If they end their NCAA drought, I thought, that will long be remembered as the game that put the Wildcats over the top. Now I’m thinking, if the Cats don’t make the Big Dance, two epic toe-stubs against Illinois will be remembered as the reason. I...

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Big Ten Power Ranking: On-the-bubble Spartans, Wolverines need to be on their games

The league race is sorting itself out. The bigger question, though—the Big Dance—remains up in the air. Five teams are in good shape. Barring major collapses, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota and Northwestern are mainly concerned about seeding. It won’t be a great year in that area; whether the Big Ten cracks the top 16 seeds is an open question. The big NCAA questions are with bubble teams Michigan and Michigan State, who both need strong finishes. The Wolverines will need to play well on the road, where they have struggled. And the Spartans will need to soldier on after losing another player to a knee injury. CBSsports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm’s latest Big Ten seeding predictions (as of Monday, Feb. 20): Purdue 4, Wisconsin 5, Maryland 6, Minnesota 6, Northwestern 7, Michigan 9, Michigan State 10. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had it like this: Purdue 4, Wisconsin 5, Maryland 6, Minnesota 8, Northwestern 8, Michigan 9, Michigan State 10. In the league race, I’d give a slight edge to Wisconsin, based on schedule. But I would give a more significant edge to Purdue, based on the way the teams are playing. Maryland is lurking, especially if it can halt Minnesota’s five-game winning streak. At two games back with four to go, Northwestern is not in the hunt for the Big Ten. But its first-ever NCAA bid is more than enough of...

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