March has arrived. Two huge tournaments loom for the Buckeyes as the Madness draws near. Indiana poses a major challenge for the Buckeyes today, and will be a preview of what to expect come Tourney time. Ohio State needs to step up to the challenge in order to gain ground in the conference standings, but also to boost confidence heading into the last game of the regular season.
Tonight’s 9 p.m. matchup is the second-last regular season contest for each of the two contenders before the Big Ten Tournament begins on March 14. Both teams could use some momentum heading into the postseason, especially the Buckeyes. #2 Indiana (25-4, 13-3 Big Ten) needs a win to assert its dominance and prove that the Hoosiers are the top dog of the league. Following an upset loss on the road to Illinois on February 26, Indiana looked a bit vulnerable. Though the Hoosiers easily handled Iowa a few days later, Indiana would love to have some positive energy heading into the team’s season finale with Michigan and then the Big Ten Tourney. Still, #14 Ohio State needs the “W” even more.
The Buckeyes (21-7, 11-5 Big Ten) have won their last three matches, snagging victories over tough opponents Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern. But the Bucks lack a significant, defining road win this season. Against ranked opponents on the road, OSU owns an unappealing 0-5 record. The most recent road game against a ranked opponent resulted in an embarrassing 71-49 loss to Wisconsin on February 17. For OSU, picking up its first big victory away from the Schottenstein Center will not be a simple task. Assembly Hall is not an easy venue to play in as the road team. As OSU’s Deshaun Thomas told The Lantern, “It’s one of the loudest places I’ve been at, besides Kansas.” Head coach Thad Matta agreed: “It’s proven over time it’s one of the toughest places to play in.” Indiana boasts a 17-1 record on its home court this season, with the lone loss coming against Wisconsin in mid-January.
But if Ohio State wants to claw its way to the top of the pack past Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, all tied with OSU for the second spot, the Bucks need to find a way to win tonight. The key to doing so is defending Indiana’s top scorers better than last time and coming up with secondary scoring. The last time the squads paired off on February 10, the Hoosiers trounced Ohio State, 81-68. Indiana playmakers Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo ran rampant. OSU’s defense could not stop the dangerous pair, as Zeller finished with 24 points and eight rebounds, while Oladipo collected a career-high 26 points and eight boards.
Ohio State has improved since it suffered a beating to Indiana. The Buckeyes have drawn more fouls and seen more scoring from Lenzelle Smith Jr. The junior guard led the team in scoring in OSU’s last game on February 28, putting up 24 in a 63-53 triumph over Northwestern. The defense has also looked stellar as of late, limiting opponents to 60 or fewer points in four of the past five games. Indiana head coach Tom Crean agrees that this is a much-improved OSU team. “They’re better from when we played them the last time, because they are getting fouled a lot more,” Crean said. “In the last five games, they’ve made more free throws than their opponents have taken. Deshaun Thomas is way up in his free throw shooting; Lenzelle Smith is shooting the ball at a high rate. They are rebounding the ball well, they’re getting fouled, they’re winning games and they’re really good. There’s no doubt in our mind that it’s going to be an incredible battle.”
For it to be an “incredible battle,” Ohio State has to keep the score low. The Buckeyes excel in low-scoring affairs but often falter when games require the winner to score more than 70 points. Four of the team’s five conference losses occurred when opponents posted over 70 points. The Bucks have simply lacked the secondary scoring needed to keep up with high-flying offenses. Aaron Craft and DeShaun Thomas can only carry the team so far. Though Smith, Sam Thompson and Evan Ravenal often provide some support, it is not enough to consistently score 70 points a night in the Big Ten. Thus OSU has to rely on its defense to help carry the team.
Against Indiana, that starts with defending a National Player of the Year candidate in Oladipo and an ever-dangerous playmaker in Zeller. But stopping Christian Watford must also be a focus for Ohio State. The senior forward hurt the Bucks for 20 points in the last meeting, connecting on four of five shots from behind the arc. You can’t forget Jordan Hulls either, as the senior averages 10.7 points per game and likes to shoot from deep. Overall, Indiana averages a whopping 81.9 points per night. Facing the Hoosiers offense compares to Luke Fickell’s defense taking on AJ McCarron, Eddie Lacy and the Alabama offense of last year. Thad Matta’s defense will have a tough time tonight. His team is known for playing stout D, but Indiana’s offense is a whole different beast. The Buckeyes need to turn up the knob another notch if this game is going to be close.
On offense, Thomas obviously needs to have a big night. The junior forward (19.9 ppg) is the heart of the offense, and without him to lead it, the unit sputters. Craft also plays a critical role, as he is the quarterback of the offense and the soul of the team. The junior point guard must show his well-known tenacity and aggressiveness if the rest of the team is to follow suit. Smith, Ravenal, Thompson and others must also put up significant figures. Coming off the bench, look closely at LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Amir Williams. If one or more of these three men can step up and give the team quality minutes, as well as some points off the bench, the Bucks will be in much better position.
As a whole, the OSU offense needs more explosiveness than it has shown in the past five games, when the team has shot just 41.9 percent. The Buckeyes need to shoot the ball better than that tonight. Defense will only take you so far against the Hoosiers. Defense may keep the game close, but to put away the troublesome Hoosiers, you need to have the hot hand down the stretch.
Indiana is no easy foe to face on the road, especially on an emotional Senior Night for three Hoosiers. There is a reason Ohio State has not taken down a ranked Indiana team in Assembly Hall since 2000. But the Bucks do have a chance to topple the giants of the Big Ten. Though the odds are stacked against OSU, with a combination of stellar defense and secondary scoring, the Buckeyes can capture a crucial road victory heading into Tournament season.