It’s been an upsetting few days in the Big 10 Conference.
For the third time in less than a week, a small, unheralded school marched its basketball team into a flashy Big 10 arena and walked out with hands held high in victory. This time, it was the Cardinals of Incarnate Word that pulled the trick as Kyle Hittle connected on a short jumper in the final seconds Wednesday evening to pull out an improbable 74-73 win over Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln.
Coupled with Michigan‘s recent losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan, the Big 10 has now seen two of its preseason contenders fall to the type of outfits league powerhouses have long dispatched without fanfare.
In Michigan’s case, the loss to NJIT exposed the Wolverines’ lack of a dominant frontcourt presence on the defensive end. Even then, Michigan was considered a strong offensive team. How did the Wolverines respond? They promptly put together an awful offensive showing against Eastern Michigan to lose their second straight home game on Tuesday.
Nebraska, meanwhile, hasn’t emerged as the power many believed they were destined to become. So far, coach Tim Miles’ team has dropped games to Rhode Island, Creighton and now Incarnate Word. Against the Cardinals, the Cornhuskers watched their newly-minted Division I opponents shoot 48.1 percent from the field. Incarnate Word also had five players score in double-figures on the way to gaining the biggest victory in program history.
The Cornhuskers got good offensive games from Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway on Wednesday, as the pair netted 19 and 18 points respectively. But Nebraska couldn’t come through defensively against the Cardinals and ended up suffering their worst loss of 2014-15.
Add it all up and both the Cornhuskers and Wolverines are facing some mighty tough questions heading into this weekend’s action.
Granted, Michigan and Nebraska aren’t the only conference members with bad losses on their resume. Indiana has dropped a home game to Eastern Washington, Purdue was defeated at Mackey Arena by North Florida, Northwestern is riding a three-game losing streak and Rutgers has suffered losses against the likes of George Washington and St. Peter’s. None of those teams were expected to emerge as league contenders as was the case with Nebraska and Michigan, however.
Undoubtedly, a microscope of pressure awaits both the Cornhuskers and Wolverines when they return to the court this weekend. For Nebraska, a chance at redemption comes in the form of Cincinnati at home on Saturday. Michigan meanwhile gets the tougher task of facing a top-five opponent on the road in the Arizona Wildcats.
At this point, another pair of losses would mean additional trouble for Nebraska and Michigan as the conference campaign looms. How will the two teams respond? So far, the Wolverines have had one such opportunity and failed to record a victory. For the Cornhuskers, they get a chance to bounce back against a quality opponent in the Bearcats.
Win or lose, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The Big 10 is wide open. Wisconsin of course is considered the league favorite. After that, the pecking order is unsettled. None of the conference’s other 13 teams have established themselves as clear-cut contenders, which should lead to some interesting league encounters come the early months of 2015. Where Nebraska and Michigan ultimately fall into that mix remains a question only they can answer.