Charboneau: Upstarts put Big Ten powers on notice

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

In college sports, brand matters.

There’s no doubt Alabama draws attention in football, along with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame and a handful of others.

The same can be said for college basketball as the blue bloods have been ruling the hardwood for decades — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA to name a few. It’s no different in the Big Ten, where Michigan State has been the premier program for the better part of the last 20 years, joined at various times by Indiana and Wisconsin and to varying degrees Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State.

They’re all good again, especially, it appears, Wisconsin in the Big Ten. But what is happening this season is a sign brands are changing just a bit. To what degree and how long-lasting it will be is a story still to be told.

However, what the first couple of weeks of Big Ten play has proven is that old norms are getting thrown out the window. Before Sunday, Nebraska hadn’t lost a conference game and had road wins over Maryland and Indiana. Minnesota was ranked higher in most analytical polls than any conference team and Northwestern looks like its NCAA Tournament drought could end, further enhanced by Sunday’s win at Nebraska.

But one of the clearest signs of change stood out Saturday at The Palestra in Philadelphia. That’s where Penn State was hosting Michigan State in a storied venue smack in the city Pat Chambers is using the revitalize the Nittany Lions.

Six of his players are from Philly, including four standout freshmen that are part of Chambers’ best recruiting class. It was a big day, one that continued to prove to prospects in the city — one with five college programs within miles of each other — Penn State is a viable option. No longer is it a given Philly’s best would go to Villanova, or Temple, or St. Joe’s. Nope, they’re starting to go to Penn State, and that belief was hammered home on Saturday.

In front of a raucous crowd, three of the hometown freshmen — Lamar Stevens, Tony Carr, Mike Watkins — led the Nittany Lions as they beat the Spartans leaving everyone feeling great for the home team. However, this wasn’t just some feel-good day with Penn State returning to obscurity once it headed back to the west side of the state.

This is a different team, one that has better players now that mesh with the impressive coaching of Chambers.

“I loved their grit,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I loved their athletic ability. I loved their toughness. Penn State played harder than us, played better than us and deserved to win. … We got beat by a good team. Northwestern is a good team and Minnesota is a very good team, but this is a good basketball team.”

Detroit News Big Ten Power Rankings: Week of Jan. 9

It’s a sign, to be sure, that not only are perceptions beginning to change in the Big Ten, but so is the reality.

This season might be as tough to gauge as any in the conference. Wisconsin appears, at this point, to be the front-runner. After that, it’s just about anyone’s guess, but odds are teams like Penn State, Northwestern, Minnesota and Nebraska will have a say in what happens. After all, the Golden Gophers have an RPI rating of No. 5, better than any conference team, while Nebraska and Penn State are in the top 50.

There’s still 14 games to go for most and the chances of the Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State or Maryland residing in the top four when it ends remain decent, but so are the odds it will be some newcomers.

So get ready for a fun couple of months in the Big Ten. The days of guaranteed wins seem like a thing of the past, only Rutgers appearing to lag behind the rest of the pack.

Maybe it means every team is getting better. Maybe it means the conference, as a whole, is weaker. Whatever it is, it’s not what we’re used to seeing, and that might just make for one heck of a winter.

Hoosiers recover

Entering Saturday’s game at home against Illinois, Indiana had lost three straight and four of six. It was far from the start the Hoosiers were looking for after an impressive run in non-conference play that included victories over Kansas and North Carolina.

They bounced back, however, against the Fighting Illini for a 96-80 victory.

“The biggest thing this week was not just to regain health and energy, but just absolutely stay locked in to getting better and not get distracted from anything other than how much improvement can be made, and I thought we did that,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “The most important thing was to not get away from what mattered most, and I'm proud of the way a young group of guys (focused).”

It helped the Hoosiers had four days off following their loss to Wisconsin, but things won’t get any easier. They travel to Maryland this week and next week have a road game against Penn State before hosting Michigan State.

If Indiana hopes to keep rolling, it will need to improve on its defense, which is allowing more than 80 points a game in conference play. But getting the win over Illinois at least has the Hoosiers feeling better.

“We're happy about our effort and how we came out from the beginning,” guard James Blackmon Jr. said. “That's one thing we have to keep working on. We just have to maintain and build on this game.” @mattcharboneau