By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Decades have passed since Nebraska had hope on the hardcourt. A team that has historically been an afterthought on its own campus — plus everywhere else — has energized a fan base usually focused on spring football this time of year.
Pinnacle Bank Arena was sold out again Sunday, with more than 15,000 red-clad fans taking in the Cornhuskers’ first five-game winning streak since 1999. Nebraska is in legitimate contention for the NCAA Tournament, taking great steps beyond where it was projected in the preseason. The fans have bought into what Tim Miles is building in Lincoln.
For the first time in recent memory, Nebraska has a home-court advantage. Fans have poured into the new downtown arena, taking pride in a program so often forgotten. They have an exciting, charismatic coach in Miles, the frontrunner for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. They have the conference’s leading scorer in Terran Petteway, a transfer from Texas Tech who averaged just more than three points per game before joining the Huskers.
The Big Ten’s best story keeps getting better, as the underdog Huskers keep rising up the conference standings. Soon, they could become a tournament team — that may only be the beginning for a reborn basketball program.
Emma’s Big Ten Power Rankings
1.) Michigan (19-7, 11-3) – After a convincing win over Michigan State, it’s hard to go against Michigan for the top spot. The Wolverines proved they’re the Big Ten’s elite team. Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert have formed a dangerous duo.
2.) Wisconsin (22-5, 8-5) – An impressive road win against Iowa has Wisconsin flying high, now winnings its last five games. The Badgers own the Big Ten’s best overall record at 22-5 and are still in contention for the regular-season title.
3.) Michigan State (22-6, 11-4) – The good vibes from a record-shooting win over Purdue were erased after Michigan State was dethroned for the top spot in the Big Ten standings. The good news for Tom Izzo’s team is Brandon Dawson is coming back, giving a big boost for the injury-riddled Spartans.
4.) Ohio State (22-6, 9-6) – After a shaky run through the conference slate, Ohio State is rolling again, winning three straight games and playing sound basketball. Thad Matta’s team may be a sleeper in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in recent years.
5.) Nebraska (16-10, 8-6) – Five straight wins have Nebraska toward the upper echelon of the Big Ten standings, and its run could be just beginning. The Cornhuskers are playing their best basketball and looking like a tournament team.
6.) Iowa (19-7, 8-5) – Last season, the Hawkeyes simply swung and missed at too many chances for quality wins. This time around, their resume is worthy of a tournament bid, but not enough for a high seed. Iowa will regret its missed opportunities at home.
7.) Minnesota (17-11, 6-9) – There’s a steep drop between the six and seven spot. Minnesota has stumbled in its last two games, yet still is on the bubble. The Golden Gophers need to get on a run before tournament play begins.
8.) Purdue (15-12, 5-9) – Another rough week for the Boilermakers saw two more losses and the erased hopes of postseason play. A convincing win over Indiana was soon forgotten after losses to Michigan State and Nebraska. Even worse, it appears the Boilers have quit on this season.
9.) Indiana (15-11, 5-8) – The cancellation of last Tuesday’s game with Iowa may have been the best thing for the Hoosiers. A week of regrouping helped Indiana get some confidence back with a win over Northwestern, perhaps building some positive vibes for the regular season’s final stretch.
10.) Illinois (15-10, 5-7) – Maybe the Fighting Illini have a little life left in them. A 13-point road win at Minnesota led to a weekend of rest. Illinois finishes with Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa, chances for quality wins to salvage the season.
11.) Northwestern (12-16, 5-10) – Bad news for Northwestern came in its fifth straight loss. But the worst news came before the game, when JerShon Cobb was ruled out indefinitely with an ankle injury.
12.) Penn State (13-14, 4-10) – Credit head coach Pat Chambers, who has his Penn State team playing hard each game. But the breaks haven’t followed the Nittany Lions, who continue to occupy the Big Ten’s basement.
Player of the Week
Terran Petteway, Nebraska guard – The Cornhuskers kept rolling behind the Big Ten’s leading scorer. Petteway posted 26 points in a win over Penn State, then topped it with 29 against Purdue.
Team of the Week
Ohio State – The Buckeyes battled out a win over Northwestern, then rallied from a halftime deficit to beat Minnesota. Winners of three straight games, OSU has a chance to close its season with a bang.
1.) Iowa’s resume is still unimpressive
By weathering through the brutal Big Ten with a strong record, the Hawkeyes will be back in the NCAA Tournament. But their regular season will be remembered for missed opportunities. Iowa has lost six games to ranked teams, including a pair of overtime losses to top-10 teams (Villanova and Michigan State). The most recent defeat, a five-point home loss to Wisconsin, is one Iowa wishes it could have back. The Hawkeyes have star power and potential for a postseason run, but they need to get over the hump against top teams.
2.) Don’t sleep on the Badgers
There’s the old adage that it’s best to get hot at the end of the year, and that’s exactly what Wisconsin has done. The Badgers have been victorious in their last five games, suddenly re-emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best teams. Wisconsin started 16-0 before a 1-5 stretch but then reeled off this current winning streak. The Badgers face no teams in the top five of the conference standings before the Big Ten Tournament, making it seem likely that their streak will continue.
3.) Northwestern runs out of magic
For a good three weeks, the Northwestern Wildcats were one of college basketball’s best stories. Five losses ago, many were talking about postseason hopes. But injuries and misfortunes have derailed NU’s season as a five-game skid could drag on even further. The loss of Cobb — quite possibly for the entire season — will punish an offensively-challenged team. The overmatched Wildcats just don’t have the magic from late last month.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.