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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Big Ten Playbook: Illini coaching candidates. A who’s who. And what’s up.

A lot of names are being thrown out there in the search for the next Illinois basketball coach. That’s not a bad thing. John Groce is nearing the end of a five-run that includes a 32-52 Big Ten record and what is likely to be the school’s first four-year NCAA tournament drought since the Big Dance had a field of 32. Groce has had his chance. And hasn’t measured up. I gave you eight names of possible candidates last week. This week, I’d like to update that—and cross off some potential candidates who would be shocking hires, as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to divide the names into three categories: I’ve got five guys who aren’t coming. Five guys who are the most intriguing candidates. And four guys I really don’t have a feel for at this point. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here.  ...

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Big Ten (lack of) Power Rankings: Top-16 shutout. . . At least there’s a Northwestern shoutout.

Quick now: Which is the biggest story? @ The Big Ten being shut out of the top 16 NCAA seeds for the first time since 2004? @ Northwestern playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time. Period? It probably depends on whether you like your eggs sunny-side up. What’s clear is that the Wildcats, with a huge win at Wisconsin on Sunday, have put themselves squarely in position to be the toast of the Big Dance. It’s equally clear that Big Ten will need to ham-and-egg it to sneak a team or two into top-four seeds by Selection Sunday. League-leading Wisconsin is not out of that hunt. But the Badgers’ loss makes Purdue the best bet. “It lets us know [we’re] a 5 seed and need to win to improve our position,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter, adding that he already knew they needed to win games. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard also downplayed the top-four snub in the inaugural early look given by the Selection Committee, saying so much can change in the next month. So much already has changed. Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana all were top-four seeds in Joe Lunardi’s pre-season bracket. But Michigan State has been done in by injuries and another ridiculously ambitious early schedule. Indiana handled its early challenges well, knocking off Kansas and North Carolina. But injuries and some head-scratching losses...

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Big Ten Playbook: Who’s got next at Illinois? One of these eight?

Who’s got next at Illinois? Speculation surrounding the flagging Illini seems to have moved on. It’s no longer a question of whether John Groce should be fired. Congrats to Groce and his players for a job well done at Northwestern on Tuesday. But that doesn’t change the fact that, barring a miracle, these Illinois seniors will be the first four-year class that doesn’t play in the NCAA tournament since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Also, the Northwestern win  raises the question of whether coaching is the reason Illinois hasn’t enjoyed more successful efforts like that this season. Which is why, despite a feel-good win, we’re here to talk about this: Who’s the next guy? You want names. I’ve got names. I’ll give you eight for now. I haven’t explored them with the in-depth vetting that Josh Whitman and his trusted advisers will need. But here are some guys to look at: @ Chris Mack, 47, Xavier. He’s worked for the late Xavier/Wake Forest coach, Skip Prosser, and Arizona coach Sean Miller. . . . has been to the NCAA tournament six times in seven Musketeer years—with three Sweet 16s, two second-rounds, one first round. @ Kevin Keatts, 44, UNC-Wilmington. Worked for Rick Pitino at Louisville. In two-plus seasons at Wilmington, he is 64-26, including 36-12 in the Colonial. He’s 2-for-2 in conference championships, and in the hunt for a...

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Big Ten Power Rankings: Groce is the only likely adios

This is the time of year when there’s a lot of blogging about Coaches on the Hot Seat. The hottest seat in the Big Ten belongs to John Groce. Barring a major (and unfathomable at this point) turnaround, it appears that young athletic director Josh Whitman will have to say adios to Groce. That’s not an easy thing to do, because Groce has won some friends in Champaign with the way he carries himself. He just hasn’t won enough games. Because TMGcollegesports.com wants to be a full-service website, I am doing some homework on some good candidates to be Illinois’ next basketball coach. Coming soon . . . Elsewhere around the Big Ten, I don’t see any other likely changes,  although I wonder a bit about Indiana and Ohio State. Some Indiana fans, who expect the moon, will clamor for Tom Crean to be gone. The injury situation, while very serious, doesn’t explain everything. But a coaching change seems extreme at this point. Then again, if you believe http://www.tomcreanbuyout.com/, the cost of making a coaching change drops to $1 million on July 17. It’s $4 million until then, the website says. TomCreanbuyout.com? Really? I’m staying out of that for now. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Recruiting is like the weather. Without global warming.

Honestly, I’ve never gotten real excited about Signing Day. Never got too jacked for the NFL draft, either. Because on the one hand, nobody knows whether the new guys are going to turn out to be good. On the other hand, signing-day classes are like the weather. Everybody talks about them. But that doesn’t change them. I don’t even have to look to tell you that Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Florida State, Florida, Miami, Oklahoma, LSU and Notre Dame did great. Here’s why that happens. Because the best players want to go where they have the best opportunities—to win and to put themselves in the best light for the NFL. Here’s the other thing I noticed when I paid attention to this stuff. If a kid wasn’t highly rated and all of a sudden Notre Dame and USC were interested in him, his ranking rises—and so does the ranking of whatever blue-chip school has him ranked highly. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Despite regular-season yawns, don’t sleep on Big Ten in March

Big Ten football got beat up for being over-rated when it flopped in the bowls. And now Big Ten basketball is getting beat up (by anybody who bothers to care) for under-achieving in the regular season. With good reason. The league has four teams ranked in this week’s AP media poll: No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 17 Maryland, No. 23 Purdue and No. 25 Northwestern. This is the Wildcats’ first appearance in the Top 25 since 2009-10. This quartet still doesn’t compare with the league’s five pre-season ranked teams, including four in the top 15: No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 11 Indiana, No. 12 Michigan State, No. 15 Purdue, No. 25 Maryland. And Ohio State and Michigan received votes. Just know this. . . That, and $19.95, will get you a subscription to TMGcollegesports.com. I don’t mean to diminish Top 25 rankings. They are a nice acknowledgement of good work. And it’s a big deal that Northwestern(!) has cracked the rankings. Just ask Chris Collins’ agent. But Bruce Weber once told me—and most other coaches likely would tell you the same thing—that the most tangible appeal of the Top 25 is that it gets your highlights shown on ESPN. And that is a nice thing for recruiting. And alumni. No question, the Big Ten is plodding through an undistinguished regular season. It was fourth, behind the Big 12, the ACC and the Big East, in...

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Rondo rips Wade & Butler. If you prefer soap opera to hoops, Bulls are real deal.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t inflict the latest Bulls’ tempest in a chamber pot on anyone outside their sphere of interest. But this one just overflows. After the Bulls blew a late lead in their loss to Atlanta on Wednesday, their best players, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, ripped their teammates. Some samples. . . “If you’re not pissed off any time you lose, something’s wrong,” Butler said “I don’t know if they care enough,” Wade said. To which Rajon Rondo, who was supposed to be one of the Bulls’ best players this year, but definitely isn’t, responded with an Instagram(!) tirade. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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Big Ten Power Rankings: Northwestern on verge of ending NCAA drought.

Do not adjust your sets. That is Northwestern, tied for third place with a 5-2 record after winning at Ohio State for the first time since 1977. This is not a fluke. NU is riding high despite playing five of its first seven conference games on the road, where it is 4-1. Which means that it plays seven of its final 11 at home. Chances are, a 10-8 conference record will give NU its first NCAA berth since the tournament began in 1939—at Northwestern’s very own Patten Gymnasium. The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here....

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John Groce at Illinois: It’s just not working out.

Seeing coaches lose their jobs is red meat for some fans and media. I have never enjoyed it. The human side is wrenching up-close. And with rare exceptions, coaches are hard-working, caring people who are swept down the drain by 20 year olds who aren’t talented enough. That said, John Groce’s seat at Illinois is basically sizzling. There’s a #FireJohnGroce Twitter hashtag and a Facebook page by the same name. And both are gaining steam. With good reason. Before I weigh in, some preamble is in order: The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here.  ...

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