Hot-shooting Northwestern ends Nebraska's perfect start to Big Ten play

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AP

Hot-shooting Northwestern ends Nebraska's perfect start to Big Ten play

Good things tend to happen when the shots are falling.

Northwestern's losses this season — and even some of its wins — have followed a certain theme, one of hot starts and cool finishes. But the Wildcats shot well throughout Sunday's game at the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who were one of two remaining teams with perfect records in conference play. But the Huskers' undefeated start to conference season came to a crashing halt Sunday, as the Cats walked out of Lincoln with a 74-66 victory.

For Northwestern, the win only evened its league record at 2-2, but with four of the Cats' first five conference games coming away from Evanston, two wins in the first three of those road contests ain't too shabby at all.

Northwestern shot a sparkling 51 percent from the field in this one, a stellar 50 percent after halftime. The shooting from behind the 3-point line was particularly good, with the Cats splashing home 11 of their 24 long-range attempts. Vic Law was 5-for-6 on 3s and finished with 15 points. Scottie Lindsey led the way for Northwestern with 19 points, hitting two 3s.

The Cats also came to play defensively, limiting the Huskers' high-scoring back-court duo of Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr., who came in averaging close to a combined 45 points per game in the team's three Big Ten contests. While Webster used a furious finish to the first half to boost his scoring numbers and finish with 17 points, Watson never got going and scored just six points on the afternoon.

The Cats actually started slowly but soon caught fire as the first half wore on, at one point making five straight shots. Law hit three consecutive triples to give the Cats an eight-point edge, and that stretched to 10 on a Bryant McIntosh 3 with just two and a half minutes till halftime. But then came that Nebraska surge at the end of the first half. Jack McVeigh came off the bench to hit Nebraska's first 3-pointer of the game, and then Webster took the ball away from McIntosh to get a fast-break layup and hit a free throw to complete a three-point play. That chopped Northwestern’s lead down from 10 to four in 20 seconds, but Nebraska wasn't done. Another Cats turnover turned into another Huskers triple, and a missed 3-pointer led to another Webster breakaway, with his layup giving Nebraska the lead. Webster polished off the first half with a jaw-dropping buzzer-beating triple to cap a 14-0 run over the final minute and 42 seconds of the period.

The Huskers led by as many as seven in the early stages of the second half, but then the Cats kept bombing in the 3s. Gavin Skelly hit one to cut the gap to four, and a Law triple sliced it to two not two minutes later. Lindsey put the Cats in front with a 3-pointer and tied the game at 50 with a jumper shortly thereafter. Northwestern didn't trail again. Lindsey and Law hit back-to-back 3s to stretch the Cats' lead out to six, and though the Huskers got as close as two inside of eight minutes to play, Dererk Pardon's back-to-back jumpers coupled with Lindsey's three free throws with a little more than six minutes left kept the Cats ahead for the duration.

In addition to strong shooting from the field and from 3-point range, Northwestern also shone at the free-throw line, going 13-for-14 from the stripe.

Nebraska dominated the glass early and turned Northwestern turnovers into a decent amount of points in the first half, but the teams finished almost even in each of those categories by game's end, with 30 rebounds apiece and the Huskers holding a slight 15-14 edge in points off turnovers.

Lindsey's 19 points and Law's 15 points were joined by the double-digit point production of Pardon and McIntosh, who scored 13 and 11 points, respectively.

Webster's 17 were the most by a Nebraska player, with Michael Jacobson scoring 12 points and Evan Taylor scoring 11 points.

The win sent Northwestern to 13-4 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play. Next up is a Thursday road game at Rutgers.

The loss, Nebraska's first in Big Ten play, dropped the Huskers to 9-7 overall and 3-1 in the conference. They travel to play Michigan next weekend.

Three Buckeyes, two Wolverines, two Badgers picked in NFL Draft's first round

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USA TODAY

Three Buckeyes, two Wolverines, two Badgers picked in NFL Draft's first round

After four Big Ten players were picked in the first round last year, it took a little while longer for the Big Ten train to leave the station in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft on Thursday night.

But in the end, seven players from the conference were selected in the opening 32 picks.

Ohio State's defensive secondary had the best night, with three Buckeyes defensive backs selected in the first round. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was the highest Big Ten product chosen, selected by the New Orleans Saints with the No. 11 pick. Four picks later, safety Malik Hooker went to the Indianapolis Colts at No. 15. And cornerback Gareon Conley was taken with by the Oakland Raiders with the No. 24 pick.

A pair of Michigan defenders also heard their names Thursday night. Do-it-all star Jabrill Peppers, who's expected to settle in at safety in the pros, was picked by the Cleveland Browns at No. 25. Defensive lineman Taco Charlton went to the Dallas Cowboys with the No. 28 choice.

Wisconsin wrapped up the Big Ten's first-round contingent with two of the final three picks of the night. Linebacker T.J. Watt went to the Pittsburgh Steelers with the No. 30 selection, and offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk was the No. 32 pick, heading to the Saints.

Only the SEC, with 12, had more players selected than the Big Ten.

Though not a surprise, one item of note was the Big Ten's first-round quarterback drought stretching another year. The last Big Ten quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL Draft was Kerry Collins, picked out of Penn State with the No. 5 selection in 1995.

Illini coach Brad Underwood on Mark Smith: 'First time I watched him, he reminded me of Deron Williams'

Illini coach Brad Underwood on Mark Smith: 'First time I watched him, he reminded me of Deron Williams'

Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman wanted to rekindle the glory days of Illini basketball when he made a coaching change last month, replacing John Groce with Brad Underwood.

Well, in a move that Groce rarely pulled off during his five-year tenure in Champaign, Underwood scored a huge recruiting win right out of the gates on Wednesday, when the state's Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith of Edwardsville High School, announced he'd be signing with Illinois.

The four-star recruit who earned his title of the best boys basketball player in the Land of Lincoln this past season generated a ton of excitement across the Illinois fan base, and the obviously excited Underwood is already using language sure to bring back the same kind of feeling that accompanied those aforementioned glory days.

"He's an explosive athlete. He's a very gifted athlete," Underwood said of his newest signee when speaking with reporters Thursday in Champaign. "First time I watched him, he reminded me a little bit of a former (Illinois) player, Deron Williams, but probably a better shooter at the same time at this point their careers."

Oh really, coach?

When a recruit of this magnitude — Smith is ranked as the No. 52 player in this year's class by Rivals — signs up with a team, fans are unsurprisingly amped. But comparing Smith to one of the program's all-time greats, a player who was perhaps the best on the team that reached the 2005 national title game, is sure to stir folks up even more.

While any comparisons to NBA All Stars and Olympic gold medalists might be considered a tad hyperbolic, there's no doubting that Smith is a sensational athlete and that he's a huge get for the Illini, someone who could make an instant impact in Underwood's first season.

"Some people have labeled Mark a specialist, a shooter. I don't see him as that at all. I think he's a great playmaker. I think he's a guy that can play the point and be a tremendous asset because he makes his teammates better," Underwood said. "He does whatever is needed in the course of a game. If that's scoring, he's going to score. If the defense loads to him, he's an extremely high-IQ player, he's got great feel, he's got great instincts.

"And physically he's in a position to play right away. Everybody's seen his body type, and he's a strong athlete. Usually freshmen have to develop physically. Mark doesn't. Mark's dialed in there and a very strong young man. But his skill set is very unique, and he's very well rounded in all aspects."

While the kind of athlete Smith is and his on-court prowess will be how most fans and observers judge him, his decision to play at Illinois is big for two other reasons.

First, a new head coach rarely gets to pick his first crop of players. Underwood will start his tenure at Illinois with a roster comprised mostly of Groce's recruits, including a pair of incoming freshmen in Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams, four-star guards in their own right. But, while Smith was being courted by Illinois prior to the coaching change, Underwood is the one who Smith committed to, and Underwood can count Smith as his first import to this program.

That means shaping his program's culture as much as it does shaping its style of play.

"In every way," Underwood said when asked how Smith works with the program he's trying to build. "Character wins. Yes, you have to be a very good player, there's no doubt about that. But character and the culture — he's got tremendous leadership. And I think that was evidenced at his press conference yesterday and how many people showed up and former teammates. That's a tremendous trait. Not everybody can pull that off. People are drawn to him, he's got that personality about him.

"He loves his teammates here. He's talked about that at length already and his relationships. That's exciting because that's a young man who's going to fit in well. We want to build our program around young men who win off the court just as much as they win on the court."

Second, Smith is a big in-state recruit. As mentioned, that's not something Groce could claim a lot of success in attracting. He missed out on a lot of Illinois' finest high school basketball products, famously losing close battles for the services of Jalen Brunson and Cliff Alexander. Groce's program didn't even come close on others, like stars Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, who both played for Chicago native Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

Landing Smith, the best player in Illinois if you go by his Mr. Basketball title, gives Underwood a win in one of the main categories fans care most about: recruiting the state.

"I think the lifeblood of our program is recruiting. And to be able to get Mr. Basketball in this state? We should," Underwood said. "We've got to be the option. Not just an option, we've got to be the option. We're the University of Illinois, and we've got one of the proudest, most dynamic histories. We've got a great tradition, we've got a great fan base.

"I think it speaks volumes, and I'm excited about that. I think it's something we can continue to build on, and it sure beats the alternative of not getting him."