Though Ohio State's now comfortably into the portion of their season where they're seeing teams for the second time on the year, the number one (well, tentatively) ranked Indiana Hoosiers buck this trend by heading into Value City Arena for a top ten showdown. While the Buckeyes still have a trip to storied Assembly Hall to look forward to at season's end, on Sunday, they'll have to see if they can bounce back from a close-but-no-cigar 2-point overtime road loss at the hands of #3 Michigan.
In the ever increasingly tooth and nail Big Ten – four of the last six league games have gone to overtime, gone to overtime on a 40 foot desperation heave, gone to double overtime, or ended on a virtual buzzer beater – Ohio State absolutely must get a win to stay in the mix for a shot at a regular season conference championship. With Michigan State having won last night against Purdue, an Ohio State win would squarely insert Sparty at the top of the league table. But with tons of important basketball yet to be played (including a February 24th showdown with the Spartans), OSU would be sitting lot prettier with a minimum of three league losses (which would appear to be the cut off line at this juncture) to their name as opposed to four.
In terms of history working against them, Ohio State's faced the AP's top ranked team 18 times in their history and carry in an 8-10 record against those sides. Thad Matta personally has gone against the best team in the country six times (four as Buckeyes' head coach) and has a 3-3 mark (2-2 at OSU). Of course these records mean about as much as Ohio State's all-time record in individual, non-sequitur exhibitions games against a single conference. Matchups and execution will determine this one, as per usual.
You know everything you need to about Indiana big (and national preseason player of the year), Cody Zeller. The kid brother of occasional Cavs rookie punching bag Tyler Zeller, Cody's also been somewhat equal parts inspiration, equal parts maddening at times for Hoosier faithful this year. 16.2 ppg and 8.3 rebounds are far from anything to sleep on, but just 2 points against lowly Penn State, 6 points against Georgia, and a 2-for-7 shooting night against Michigan State have left some devotees and on-lookers alike asking "this guy's the player of the year favorite?"
To the overarching strength of IU's credit, the Hoosiers are unbeaten when Zeller effectively no shows. He's also been a revelation in other contests, going for 19-and-10 in their win over then #1 Michigan (while also shooting 8-for-10 from the field), and also has a 19/19 game to his name on the 2012-2013 season. Ohio State has no logical matchup for grating-to-opposing-fan-bases future lottery pick either way, and could be in a for a long afternoon given the wealth of offensive options at Indiana's disposal that limit the ability to double team.
Joining Zeller in the front court is senior big Christian Watford. The 6-9 232 pound Alabama product averages 12.9 points per game to go along with 6.7 rebounds per. While guys of his build are often times late game liabilities on the charity stripe, Watford is actually second in the Big Ten in free throw percentage, shooting 82.1% from the charity stripe. In fact, if you sleep on Watford based on stereotypes, you'll get burned just about every time; the veteran is more of a European style big and shoots 46.8% from beyond the arc (third best in the league). By stretching Deshaun Thomas out to the perimeter, he'll force the Buckeyes' premiere offensive options to expel extra energy on the defensive side of the ball.
Indiana's trio of guards are all dangerous and should occupy whoever plays the three, Lenzelle Smith Jr, and Aaron Craft basically all night long. Junior Upper Marlboro, MD bred guard Victor Oladipo is the most prone to execute a Sam Thompson praise worthy dunk but is also multidimensional, shooting a Big Ten best 63% from the field on the season. Averaging 13.8 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, and ~1.5 GIF-able plays per contest, Oladipo is equal parts likely to solicit mindless Michael Jordan comparisons from cacophonous color guys and hit a key late game basket. Godspeed, LaSamton Rosspson.
Jordan Hulls, a six footer from right in Bloomington, also averages in the double figures in scoring (11.1 ppg) while absolutely scorching the rim from behind the three point line. Hulls leads the Big Ten shooting 50% for three point field goals. He makes more than two per game (third best in the league), while also helping support the ball distribution effort; Hulls has the third best assist-to-turnover ratio in the B1G (2.5). The senior has been at IU since some of the darker moments in Hoosiers basketball history, but now finds himself part of a 20-win team some still consider to be college basketball's best.
Finally, Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell completes an almost unfair sharp shooting starting five. Ferrell, a true freshman from Indianapolis, was ranked the 17th best player in the class of 2012 by Rivals and the 32nd best per Scout. His speed is elite, and it might not be a stretch to say his matchup with Aaron Craft might be pitting the two best traditional point guards in the Big Ten against one another. Since before even getting to IU, Ferrell hasn't minced words, calling "a national championship" his highest and primary goal. In his last five games, he's averaging 11.6 points, 3.4 assists, and a steal, while also shooting 55.9% from the field and 55.6 percent from long distance. If the freshman wall is actually a non-mythical thing (and given how many games these kids play in a year with AAU circuits and traditional high school basketball overlapping, that seems improbable at best), he's certainly not even close to hitting it.
And if you think the fun stops there, you'd be wrong again. Indiana is arguably the deepest team in the league, going a legitimate NBA 12 deep. They usually *only* play ~10 or 11, but you can expect freshman Jeremy Hollowell and junior Will Sheehey to see the bulk of support minutes, with some combination of Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Remy Abell, Maurice Creek, and Derek Elston filling in the gaps and the providing the luxury of rest for their absurdly talented starting five. Remember, Tom Crean cut senior role player/three point specialist Matt Roth (who was eligible for a fifth year) from the roster to make room for some of the incoming freshmen the team had coming in and pushed the limit of good taste having to deny Ron Patterson admission after hitting the roster ceiling of 14 (which even in big time college basketball feels rare in this day and age). This team is the culmination of such Sabanian roster pruning, and the product speaks for itself.
On paper, this isn't a favorable matchup for the Buckeyes. Ohio State's elite level defensive efficiency helps aid their efforts to play with anyone, but Indiana might be the one team capable of overwhelming the Buckeyes' defensive perimeter with sheer numbers. When you've got five legitimate scorers and two off the bench capable of making noise going against a team coming into a gun fight with a Protector Palm Pistol, the odds would seem at face value to be comfortably in your favor.
But Vegas had this game open with the Buckeyes as 1.5 point favorites, and now has it pegged as a pick 'em. Perhaps Indiana's waining seconds layup loss to Illinois showed us something we didn't previously know about the Hoosiers, or maybe better yet, the conventional wisdom that winning on the road in the nation's best conference is a Herculean challenge rings truest.
I don't doubt Ohio State's ability to keep it close; the Illinois aberration aside, they've been in every game against every team they've played all season regardless of caliber. Whether or not they can actually beat a team like Indiana could very well determine the seeding of the Big Ten tournament and also more firmly establish Ohio State's ceiling when everything in the sport's toughest league is said and done.
Holy War. With both teams coming off a loss, there's no true rebound game counter momentum. Indiana's the better team, and it should prove the differentiator when it matters most. IU, 70-67.