College notebook: Illini already warm

Illinois' Scott Langley during the 2010 NCAA Championship at the Honors Course.

Illinois' Scott Langley during the 2010 NCAA Championship at the Honors Course.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.61 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.62 
3Patrick RodgersStanford  68.67 
4Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.81 
5Cameron WilsonStanford  69.05 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.92 
2Georgia 69.62 
3Georgia Tech 69.62 
4Oklahoma State 69.72  10 
5California 69.81  11 

Today’s forecast for Champaign, Ill.: 39 degrees, with a 15-mph wind and a chance of snow showers. Not ideal conditions for practice, of course, which makes Illinois’ victory March 8 at the Louisiana Masters all the more impressive.

In their first stroke-play event of the spring, the Illini shot 10-under 854 and beat LSU by six strokes. It was Illinois’ third victory of the season, and its 19th title in the past 3 1/2 years. The Illini were favored in the event, yes, but in the winter it’s no small feat for a team from the Northeast or Midwest to travel South – this time to Louisiana – and win.

“Our expectations are adjusted this time of year, but we want to win; we want to compete,” said Illinois coach Mike Small, whose team is No. 6 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. “Would I love the opportunity to hit balls (outside) this time of year? Sure, but that’s just not the reality of it. And we’ve embraced that.”

Instead of beating balls on the range, Illinois players practice in their state-of-the-art indoor facility and work in hitting bays and short-game areas. The goal, Small said, is to build toward April and May, toward the Big Ten and NCAA championships. (The Illini have advanced to the NCAA finals in five of the past eight years.)

The Illini already may not be far from championship form. Three Illinois players finished in the top 10 in Louisiana, led by junior Luke Guthrie, who played the final 27 holes without a bogey and tied for second, four strokes behind Kent State All-American John Hahn. Also in the top 10 were senior Chris DeForest (T-4) and 2010 NCAA champion Scott Langley, who tied for ninth.

That’s an encouraging sign for an Illinois team that faces a difficult upcoming stretch, starting with the Callaway Collegiate Match Play on March 20-22 in Ball Ground, Ga.

“There’s optimism there,” Small said. “We’re building some momentum for the spring.”

• • •

Randolph ready for spring: Mississippi senior Jonathan Randolph is not about to panic. Not before the postseason. And especially not when he’s reminded of his 2009-10 campaign, when he had three victories and eight top 5s in 12 events on his way to the No. 6 ranking in the country.

This season? No victories and no top 3s in seven starts and a ranking of No. 42. Quite a contrast, yes, but look closer: With a T-5 last week at the John Hayt Collegiate, Randolph earned his fourth top 10 of the season. Only once has he finished outside the top 20.

“I played a lot better than it showed, really, in the fall,” Randolph said recently. “Any time you play against these guys week in and week out, it’s good competition. If you slip up, it’s going to show.”

That may help explain the extra work this offseason with his swing coach, V.J. Trolio. Together, they refined Randolph’s setup, pivot and basic fundamentals, trying to make sure “there are not too many moving parts,” Randolph said.

Despite playing only a handful of rounds this winter, Randolph hovered near the lead at last month’s SunTrust Gator Invitational before eventually tying for seventh. His 2010 was jump-started at the Gator, where he won and went on to post six of his eight top 5s in the spring. So, should we expect a similar breakthrough during the next few months?

“I love the courses in the spring,” said Randolph, who is the defending champion at his next event, the Chris Schenkel Invitational, to be held March 18-20 in Statesboro, Ga.

“I start off the year with the right processes and thoughts, and I feel refreshed and ready to go. I find my swing, get comfortable and stick with it. I’m definitely ready for a big spring.”

• • •

Lynn University undoubtedly is one of the top NCAA Division II men’s teams. Ranked third in the latest Golf Coaches Association of America poll (behind only Chico State and Western Washington), Lynn has won four tournaments this season, including the Golfweek Division II Spring Invitational on March 1. More remarkable: In those six events, the Boca Raton, Fla., school has used four different lineups.

“The fact that all these guys are battling in the heat down the stretch and winning golf tournaments, that says a lot,” Lynn coach Chris Greenwood said.

After a 2009-10 season in which the Fighting Knights graduated three All-Americans and made their fourth national-championship appearance, the team has imported more foreign talent. Only three of the 14 players on the Lynn roster are from the U.S., and none of the starting five. Their team huddle could be a United Nations meeting: Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Scotland and Ireland are represented. Marcelo Rozo, who represented Colombia at the 2010 World Amateur Team Championship, has been one of the top junior-college players in the country during the past two years, and former Portuguese stars Pepito Joia and Ricardo Gouveia already have won in their first year on campus.

Ask Greenwood what his team can improve upon, and he struggles for an answer. “How can we improve?” he asks rhetorically, then pauses for 10 seconds. “Hold on, I’ll think of something good.” Another 10-second pause.

“Well, it may be the coach; it may be me,” he said. “The pressure is on me. I’m the one who has to put the right five guys out there.”

• • •

Short shots: Playing in his home country of Colombia, Florida senior Andres Echavarria finished T-19 at the Nationwide Tour’s Bogota Open. The top-25 finish secured Echavarria a spot in the tour’s next event, March 24-27 in Louisiana, but it is not yet known if he will play. The Gators are scheduled to play March 27-29 at the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate in Awendaw, S.C. . . . San Diego State won the Fresno State Lexus Classic for its fourth victory of the season, and its third title in the past four events. The Aztecs are No. 10 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. . . . Todd Selders, former women’s coach at SMU, has been hired as the men’s assistant coach at Coastal Carolina.

• • •

A look ahead

What: Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Southern Highlands GC in Las Vegas

Why it’s important: One of the premier college events is even more intriguing this year, with the potential for a head-to-head showdown of Player of the Year candidates Peter Uihlein (Oklahoma State) and Patrick Cantlay (UCLA), Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Uihlein is dealing with the hoopla surrounding his Masters debut next month, and he also announced that he will play next week’s Transitions Championship on the PGA Tour. Three of the top five teams in Golfweek’s rankings are in the field: Oklahoma State (1), UCLA (3) and Georgia Tech (4). Texas (7), Georgia (13), Texas Tech (14) and California (20) also pose a threat.

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