Spate of upsets has Big Ten's best on lookout
It's open season on ranked teams in the Big Ten.
Unranked teams have pulled off no fewer than seven upsets already against Top 25 opponents - and two-thirds of the conference season remains. And given that two ranked teams have beaten higher-ranked opponents, it's easy to see why the league's top teams are uneasy.
Thad Matta, who coaches two-time defending champion and preseason favorite Ohio State, was asked if he'd seen anything like this in his eight seasons in the league.
''I don't know if I have. Especially, what are we, three weeks into the Big Ten season?'' he said. ''It seems every now and then somebody will sneak up on somebody, but not at the level that it's happened.''
Indiana knows. The Hoosiers climbed as high as No. 7 in The Associated Press rankings, but has dropped three in a row, including two to unranked teams Minnesota and Nebraska.
''This league has 12 teams that can play with anybody,'' coach Tom Crean said after his 11th-ranked Hoosiers were upended 70-69 on Wednesday night by Nebraska, which came in just 1-5 in its first season in the Big Ten. ''We're one of them, as is Nebraska. I don't know who I said it to yesterday, but you can't get too concerned with records with anybody in this league right now.''
The first night of conference play set the stage.
Iowa, 8-6 at the time, came to Kohl Center on New Year's Eve and stunned No. 11 Wisconsin, 72-65. The Badgers had won their last 23 home games against unranked opponents.
There's been a steady drumbeat of surprises since: Illinois 79, No. 5 Ohio State 74 on Jan. 10; Minnesota 79, No. 7 Indiana 74 on Jan. 12; Iowa 75, No. 13 Michigan 59 on Jan. 14; Northwestern 91, No. 6 Michigan State 74 on Jan. 14; Nebraska over Indiana on Wednesday night and then Penn State 54, No. 22 Illinois 52 on Thursday night.
In addition, No. 13 Indiana shocked second-ranked Ohio State 74-71, also on Dec. 31, with No. 20 Michigan topping ninth-ranked Michigan State 60-59 last Saturday.
No wonder every team in the Big Ten has at least two conference losses - and no one is more than three games out of first. That is remarkable in a league where most teams have played just seven of their 18 conference games so far.
Blame it on parity, or maybe too many strong teams, or maybe even too few. This much is clear: There are no cream puffs on the menu.
''This conference is unbelievable,'' Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said after his team stung Illinois on Thursday night. ''It is the best conference, great coaches, great players. It is a flat out battle every time you step on the floor. You can't take anything for granted. You can't let up. That's what I try to tell our guys: You cannot let up.''
Slowly but surely, that message is sinking in.
No. 6 Ohio State was already wary of playing on the road - the Buckeyes are just 2-3 away from home - but now are well aware of what can happen as they head to Lincoln, Neb., for the first time on Saturday. The Cornhuskers, without three starters earlier in the season, have gotten back mainstays Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley. Each had 10 points and Diaz hit the winning free throws with 11 seconds left in the victory over Indiana.
''I've been noticing (the upsets),'' said William Buford, Ohio State's lone senior. ''I've noticed a lot of them. It just shows that the Big Ten is a real tough conference this year. Anybody can lose on any given night.''
Along the way, the Big Ten has added a new fitness regimen for its fans. Once every few days, it seems, they can burn off calories by rushing the court.
''I wish I could see them on the floor after every game,'' Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said after the upset of Indiana. ''That means everybody is happy, so that is pretty big. Let's be real - that is what it is about in college. They see other people do it so they want to do it, and I'm glad we gave them the opportunity to do it.''
And the Cornhuskers are not alone.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .