This has not been the kind of year the Ohio State basketball program and its fans have become accustomed to during Thad Matta's tenure in Columbus. Thursday night's 65-63 loss to Penn State marked the first time the Buckeyes have been swept by the Nittany Lions since the 1997-98 season, and dropped the team to 9-7 in conference play. Those seven losses are the most for Ohio State since the 2008-09 season, which is also the year the team bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Siena. Inconsistent perimeter shooting, the lack of a bona fide post threat, and sloppiness with the ball have plagued the Buckeyes all season, and if they hope to avoid another early exit in March, the team will need to hit a hot streak at the right time.
Prior to the loss in the Bryce Jordan Center, the Buckeyes had won six of seven in February, but the trouble spots that have typified the season since the calendar page turned have simply never gone away. Turning the ball over at an average rate of nearly ten per game, routinely being outrebounded, especially on the offensive glass, and streaky perimeter shooting that has a tendency to go cold when the game is on the line are not ingredients in a recipe for success. About the only consistency Ohio State has had on the offensive side of the ball is junior forward LaQuinton Ross, who scored in double-figures in six of eight games played in the month and leads the team at 14.4 points per game.
Of course, Ohio State is not the only team in the Big Ten that's taken some lumps. In a season that can only be described as conference cannibalism, no Big Ten team has been immune to head-shaking losses. Indiana, whom the Buckeyes travel to Bloomington to play on Sunday afternoon, may as well be the poster child for a conference season in which no one team has been dominant and any team, one through twelve, can and has beaten any other on any given night. The Hoosiers, who at 16-12 on the season likely have no chance at making the Big Dance without winning the conference tournament, have beaten the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, but have also imploded against Northwestern, Penn State, Illinois, and in-state rival Purdue, who comprise the bottom four in the Big Ten standings.
Indiana's latest win, 93-86 over Iowa at Assembly Hall, actually helped Ohio State. The Buckeyes are currently in line for the four seed in the Big Ten tournament, which means a first-round bye, just a half a game ahead of the Hawkeyes.
Tom Crean's squad is led by Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell is tied for third in the conference in scoring at 17.6 points per game, while also dishing out 3.8 assists and shooting a very healthy 42.4 percent from the three-point line. The sophomore point guard is the only remaining starter from last year's Big Ten regular season champions that made it to the Sweet 16.
The Hoosiers also boast the Big Ten's top rebounder in freshman forward Noah Vonleh. The 6'10" Vonleh is hauling in 9.1 boards per game, including a conference-high 2.5 on the offensive glass, helping to propel Indiana to the conference's second-best rebounding margin at +8.6 per contest. Vonleh is also chipping in 11.6 points, 1.3 blocked shots, and nearly a steal a game in his first season in Bloomington.
Senior Will Sheehey, who is coming off a career-high 30 points against Iowa, is third on the team in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 10.8 points and four boards per game, while playing the second-most minutes. Sheehey has never scored more than five points against the Buckeyes in five career regular season games.
This final regular season road game is a big one for Ohio State if they hope to secure a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament in two weeks. Both Iowa and the Buckeyes still must play Michigan State, but the Hawkeyes will also hook up with a pair of 5-10 teams in Purdue and Illinois. A loss in Blommington will likely mean a Thursday tilt for Ohio State in Indianapolis on March 13th.
Numbers to Know
Indiana's conference-worst offensive turnover average will be pitted against an Ohio State defense that is top-ranked in forcing turnovers, at 14.3 per contest. This will be a contrast in styles, as the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten with a +3.41 turnover margin, while the Hoosiers occupy the cellar at -2.46. Senior Aaron Craft is just four steals shy of tying former Illinois guard Bruce Douglas' Big Ten career record of 324, and this may be his best shot at pulling even or even claiming the top spot by himself.
The percentage of missed Hoosier shots that they track down on the offensive glass. Led by Vonleh, Indiana is second in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage. The Buckeyes, by contrast, are the fourth-worst in the conference in allowing the opposition to clean up on the offensive glass, failing to grab over 30 percent of opponents' shots.
The number of regular season games in the month of March that seniors Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. have lost in their Ohio State careers. The Buckeyes are 5-0 the past three years closing out the conference schedule before the Big Ten tournament. This streak will be greatly tested in the final two contests against Indiana and Michigan State, but the Buckeyes need these wins as badly as ever.
Cast of Characters
The senior guard was limited to just 19 minutes in the loss to Penn State, and finished the game without recording a steal for just the third time all season. Leading the Big Ten with 2.5 thefts per game and just four shy of tying the conference's career record, Craft will be licking his chops against an Indiana team that turns it over more than anyone else in the conference.
The junior from Chicago has found his shooting stroke of late from beyond the arc, making 7-13 (53.8 percent) from three-point distance in the past three games. Despite having the blocked shot of the game against Penn State, sending a Tim Frazier runner back out across half court, Thompson was just 3-10 from the floor for eight points against the Nittany Lions, and needs a bounce-back game for the Buckeyes against the Hoosiers.
Ferrell, who as mentioned is tied for third in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.6 points per game, is also looking for a bounce-back game. The sophomore point guard shot just 2-6 from the floor in Thursday night's victory over Iowa, scoring eight points. This was just the second game all season that Ferrell has failed to score in double-figures.
A strong candidate for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Vonleh is nearly averaging a double-double in his first year on the court in Bloomington at 11.6 points and 9.1 boards a game. He leads the conference in total rebounding, defensive rebounding, and offensive rebounding, and given Ohio State's proclivity for giving up second chances on the offensive glass, could be poised for a big game on Sunday.