Improbable as it may have seemed a month ago, Ohio State basketball is one of the hottest teams in the country right now. The Buckeyes have won their first three Big Ten games, and seven straight overall.
After Wednesday night's 65-56 victory over Northwestern in Evanston, Ohio State improved its record to 11-5 on the season, and is one of five teams remaining in the Big Ten without a conference loss. This is a young team that is growing up fast.
Redshirt sophomore Kam Williams was the latest Buckeye to play the hero role, knocking down a career-high five three-point shots and scoring 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting against the Wildcats.
"I know I can get hot anywhere," Williams said after the game. "It felt that way as soon as we got off the plane and came here. I knew I was going to have a hot hand."
In its first conference road game, Ohio State needed Williams' hot hand. The rest of Thad Matta's squad failed to connect from long distance, shooting a collective 0-for-13, and shot under 40 percent from the field.
As has been the case throughout the current winning streak, though, the Buckeyes were stout on the defensive side of the ball. Northwestern was the 10th of 16 opponents to shoot below 40 percent from the floor on the season, as just over 31 percent of the Wildcats' shots fell. Ohio State is allowing an average of just 63 points per game, which positions the team just outside the top 20 nationally.
That sort of defensive effort will be imperative on Sunday if the Buckeyes hope to keep their winning streak alive. Indiana averages better than 85 points per game, which puts the Hoosiers among the top 10 in the country. Also 3-0 in the Big Ten, Tom Crean's bunch is fresh off a 59-58 slugfest against Wisconsin this past Tuesday night in Bloomington.
Indiana will be less than 100 percent on Sunday, though, as it was revealed on Tuesday that sophomore James Blackmon, Jr., the team's second-leading scorer at nearly 16 points a night, underwent potentially season-ending knee surgery.
"We miss him, we truly miss him," Crean said. "At the same time, you've got to keep preaching that there's unbelievable opportunity for other people."
Even without Blackmon, the Hoosiers have some serious firepower, as three others average double-figure scoring. For the Buckeyes to come away with a W in hostile territory on Sunday, their defense must continue to be their calling card.
Numbers to know
As of this writing, Ohio State is tied for third in the country in total blocked shots. Daniel Giddens leads the Buckeye block party, averaging 2.4 rejections per game. Fellow big man Trevor Thompson also turns back 1.5 shots a game, while Keita Bates-Diop blocks just less than one from the wing. As a team, Ohio State averages six blocked shots a game, a big reason for the improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
With the seven-game winning streak, the Buckeyes have crept back into the top 50 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings as of this writing. After a stretch that saw the team lose five of seven in late November and early December, most left Ohio State for dead. Even an NIT bid seemed like wishful thinking. But the Buckeyes are trending in the right direction, and while an NCAA tournament bid may still be a longshot, the scarlet and gray have put themselves back into the conversation.
A seven-game winning streak is nice and all, but Indiana comes to town riding a wave that's a game better. Since a 20-point blowout loss to Duke on December 2nd, the Hoosiers have not come up on the short end of the scoreboard. At 13-3 overall, Indiana is the No. 24 team in the country according to KenPom, and has a favorable Big Ten schedule, only playing conference favorites Michigan State, Maryland, and Purdue once apiece.
Cast of characters
Wednesday's big stat line notwithstanding, Killa Kam has been coming on of late. The Baltimore native has benefited from increased minutes in the wake of Austin Grandstaff's transfer, and has scored in double figures in three of the past four games. Despite a modest 7.4 points per game average, Williams is knocking down nearly 45 percent of his three-point attempts to lead the team.
Thompson has been a bit of an enigma through the season's first 16 games. When the Virginia Tech transfer is locked in mentally, he has provided the kind of paint presence not seen in Columbus in a few years, but there have been games where he's been a complete non-factor. Against Northwestern, Thompson logged his third double-double of the season, scoring 12 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. If Ohio State is to pull off the upset against Indiana, Thompson will need a strong game down low.
Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell
No player has meant more to the Hoosier program during Crean's tenure than Ferrell. The senior is having his best season in Bloomington, leading the team with 17 points and 5.8 assists a game, while shooting just under 50 percent from the floor, including over 40 percent from three-point range. Given the youth of the Buckeye point guards, Ferrell has an opportunity to have a huge impact on Sunday.
With Blackmon out, Williams is the obvious answer to step into the secondary offensive option position next to Ferrell. The junior from Virginia averages nearly 13 points, and leads the team with 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Curiously, though, Williams netted just two points on 1-for-4 shooting in the win over Wisconsin. The Hoosiers will need more out of Williams as they move forward in the Big Ten season without Blackmon.
How to watch
Game time: 1:30 p.m. ET.
Radio: WBNS-FM 97.1