Previewing Indiana: Buckeyes Ready for Top-Ranked Hoosiers
By Patrick Murphy
COLUMBUS, Ohio — No game can be taken for granted in the Big Ten this season. That is the message coach Tom Crean will have for his No. 1-ranked Indiana team on Sunday. It’s the same message Thad Matta has for his Ohio State Buckeyes before each and every game.
There may be no need to remind either team before they take the court on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) for one of the biggest college basketball games of the year.
Welcome to the new Big Ten.
The Hoosiers are coming off a last-second loss on the road to unranked Illinois on Thursday night; a game they led until late in the contest. Ohio State is also coming off a loss in overtime on Tuesday to archrival Michigan; a game the Buckeyes also were also leading for the majority of the second half.
This matchup of top-10 teams will not only be a battle of teams fighting for the Big Ten regular season title, but it will also be critical for both groups trying to avoid the first losing streak of the season.
With Kansas losing to Oklahoma State and TCU last week, the Buckeyes (17-5, 7-3 Big Ten) now have the nation’s longest active streak without losing consecutive games. This will be tested against Indiana (20-3, 8-2), a team that is also be looking to rebound from their frustrating Thursday night.
“(Illinois) stopped (Indiana’s) transition game really well,” junior Deshaun Thomas said of the upset in Champaign, a place the Buckeyes lost by 19 earlier this year.
“IU scores real well in transition and that’s what Illinois did at the game. They just stopped them and played really hard.”
That transition game has been important all season for the Hoosiers, as they have used a combination of talented guards and one of the best, and most athletic, centers in the country.
Cody Zeller has been outstanding all season, which explains why he is a candidate for the National Player of the Year award. The sophomore big man is averaging 16.2 points per game and 8.3 rebounds. He impacts the game on both ends of the court and runs the court as well as anyone in the country.
Buckeye sophomore Amir Williams, who has already competed against centers Mason Plumlee and Jeff Withey this season, knows he had better bring more of what we saw from the 6-11 center during Ohio State’s overtime battle with Michigan on Tuesday night.
“He’s probably one of the best in college basketball at running the floor,” Williams said this week.
“That’s one thing I’ve got to key in on this game on Sunday because he’s running for dunks.”
While slowing Zeller down will help Ohio State, Indiana has been the top-ranked team in basketball because they are diverse and deep. They have four players other than Zeller that score double figures and shoot at 43 percent or better from the floor.
They are also all solid on the other end of the court.
“They’re a great defensive team,” Thomas said. “They can switch one through four, sometimes jam the screen, they play zone. They mix it up. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
As usual, the Buckeyes know one of the easiest ways to give this game away at him is to turn the ball over and give Indiana extra chances at the offensive end of the floor.
“I think us taking care of the basketball and attempting to execute (is essential),” head coach Thad Matta said in discussing the Hoosiers’ defense.
“They’re going to change defenses; they change defenses in the middle of a possession.”
This diversity offensively and defensively is what has made them consistently one of the top-five teams this season. They can score in many different ways – scoring the second most points per game in the country – but have limited the opposition to just over 61 points a night.
While taking down an Indiana team looking to respond to a surprising loss seems like a daunting task for Ohio State, the Buckeyes do have two things in the favor.
First, this team is really starting to come together and seems to be playing some of its best basketball of the season. Against Michigan, Ohio State had four players score in double figures, including substitute LaQuinton Ross, who played aggressive throughout and finished with 16 points and five rebounds.
While his play against a top team, along with that of Williams – who scored nine points and was a major factor defensively – is promising, Matta knows it must become continuous.
“They played better Tuesday night, now can they do it again,” Matta asked himself.
“And then again? And then again?”
Both will be expected to play a big role on Sunday, as the Buckeyes will need the performance from the Michigan game to carry over as they return home to Columbus.
The second advantage Ohio State has is that this game is at home, a place Ohio State has only lost once this season. Students have been camped outside the Schottenstein Center since Wednesday, hoping to get the best seats for this game. They are calling it “Mattaritaville,” and this type of excitement has helped to turn the arena into a difficult place to play when big-time competition comes to town.
“I think it’s awesome,” the namesake for the camping site said.
“I think from the standpoint of where Ohio State basketball was when we got here nine years ago… To see the environment in the Schottenstein Center, how that has evolved in terms of the excitement level. I couldn’t be more excited.”
This atmosphere has helped the Buckeyes to big home wins over the last few years, and will need to fuel the team again Sunday afternoon.
If the fans are fired up, the team will feed off the energy and it will show in their play. If they can continue the offensive and defensive effort they showed in Ann Arbor, it could add up to a huge win in a season that could be taking a positive turn for Buckeye fans.