College Men

Men's spring preview: Big 10

Illinois' Thomas Pieters
Illinois' Thomas Pieters ( Tracy Wilcox )

Friday, January 11, 2013

Illinois head coach Mike Small has a saying: "Win tournaments in the fall, win championships in the spring." The Illini took care of the first half of that statement. Now they’re focused on the latter.

Illinois, No. 17 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, is seeking a fifth consecutive Big Ten title, and it is doing so with a new cast of characters now that the core of Luke Guthrie, Scott Langley and Chris DeForest is on to pro golf.

Langley, the 2010 NCAA champ, and Guthrie will be on the PGA Tour this season, while DeForest has Tour status Not bad, considering all three turned pro less than two years ago. Illinois is one of three programs to have two players on the PGA Tour who turned pro in 2011 or later (Augusta State and Georgia are the others).

Illinois also is seeking an assistant coach after Zach Guthrie left the program to caddie for his younger brother, Luke Guthrie, on the PGA Tour. Small said he hasn’t determined yet if he will hire an assistant for the spring season, or wait until the summer.

The Illini are led by reigning NCAA champion Thomas Pieters, who’s No. 59 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and coming off a fourth-place finish at the Western Refining College All-America Golf Classic. “I think Thomas had a successful fall, considering it was his first since he won the NCAA Championship,” Small said. “He’s learning a lot about being a national champion. You go to an event and you know people are looking at you. You have to get used to that.”

Illinois began this season with victories at the Wolf Run Intercollegiate and D.A. Weibring Intercollegiate, but it was a fifth-place finish at the prestigious Isleworth Collegiate Invitational without Pieters in the lineup that may be most encouraging to Small’s team.

Two freshmen, Charlie Danielson (No. 76) and Thomas Detry (No. 122), are the Illini’s best-ranked players behind Pieters. Sophomore Brian Campbell is No. 138 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Detry teamed with Pieters to represent Belgium at the 2012 World Amateur Team Championship.

“Charlie came ready to compete in college,” Small said. “He didn’t come scared or intimidated.”

It was a good fall for a young team, but Small stressed that it can’t rest on the program’s past accomplishments. “We can be a good team, but we need to go out and earn it,” Small said. “There’s a lot of good teams behind us. If we don’t get better, we’re not going to have a chance to win the Big Ten and get to nationals.”

• • •

Where it stands now

Top of the class: Illinois

Best player of the fall: Thomas Pieters, Illinois

• • •

Past champions

2012: Illinois

2011: Illinois

2010: Illinois

2009: Illinois

2008: Michigan State

• • •

Conference capsules

Illinois (Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: No. 17)

The Illini are the favorites for a fifth consecutive Big Ten title after a fall that included two victories. Freshman Charlie Danielson, No. 76 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, has fit in nicely. Fellow frosh Thomas Detry also has lots of potential. A fifth-place finish at Isleworth without NCAA champ Thomas Pieters showed this team’s depth.

Northwestern (No. 31)

Four Wildcats had top-3 finishes in the fall, including two who had victories. Jack Perry won at Inverness, while John Callahan claimed the Windon. Perry, at No. 78 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, is the Wildcats’ highest-ranked player.

Indiana (No. 43)

Season started strong with win at Northern Intercollegiate and runner-up at Wolf Run, where Brant Peaper won the individual title. Closing the fall with 10th-place finish at Olympia Fields and last-place showing at Isleworth raises questions about the spring, though. Peaper, at No. 105 in Golfweek rankings, is team’s highest-ranked player.

Iowa (No. 55)

The Hawkeyes will have to keep an eye on their head-to-head record in the spring. They enter the second half of the season with a 29-34-1 mark. Only teams with a .500 or better record can earn at-large bids to the postseason.

Ohio State (No. 74)

The Buckeyes were in the top-3 in their first three events this year, including a victory at the Windon Memorial, but finishes last in their last two fall tournaments (Jack Nicklaus Invitational, Royal Oaks Intercollegiate). The Buckeyes don’t have a player in the top 200 of the Golfweek rankings.

Purdue (No. 77)

The Boilermakers enter the spring with a 22-29-1 record. Adam Schenk, who had two top-10s in the fall, is No. 123 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Ranking.

Michigan State (No. 91)

The Spartans won Notre Dame’s event, the Fighting Irish Gridiron Classic, and finished between fourth and finished no worse than eighth, but did so against the nation’s 93rd-hardest schedule. Matthew Moseley, at No. 246 in the Golfweek rankings, is the team’s highest-ranked player.

Penn State (No. 113)

The Nittany Lions started the season by being DQ’d from the Gopher Invitational, but closed with top-3 finishes in two of the final three tournaments. Jens Talbert, No. 372 in the Golfweek ranking, is the team’s highest-ranked player.

Minnesota (No. 122)

It was a tough fall for the Gophers, as they finished outside the top 10 in three of five starts. A fourth-place showing at the William H. Tucker was their best showing. Senior Erik Van Rooyen, No. 144 in the Golfweek rankings, had two top-5s in the fall.

Michigan (No. 126)

It was less than four years ago that the Wolverines made match play at the NCAA Championship. Now the Wolverines don’t have a player ranked in the top 400 in the Golfweek rankings. The Wolverines didn’t finish better than ninth in four stroke-play starts.

Nebraska (No. 149)

Nebraska won its own Fairway Club Invitational, but didn’t have another top-5 finish until its final event of the fall, the Price’s Give ‘Em Five Invitational. No Nebraska player is ranked in the top 600 of the Golfweek rankings.

Wisconsin (No. 161)

The Badgers enter the spring season with a 36-43-2 record. Chris Meyer, at No. 530 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, is the team’s highest-ranked player.

Conference championship

Big Ten Championship, April 26-28, French Lick (Pete Dye), French Lick, Ind.

Lance Ringler's prediction

Illinois. Many thought this would be the year that another team from the Big 10 would knock Illinois out of the top spot, but that was early in the fall. Not now. Mike Small's squad has once again proven to be the clear favorite heading into the spring season and most likely will make it six in a row. readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.