April 23, 2014

Hoosier Best Big Ten Team? IU Confirms It’s Not Ohio State

Victor Oladipo, Lenzelle SmithIt started with a Tyler Griffey slip and open layup in Champaign. With that bucket, capping off a late Illini surge, the Hoosiers dropped their second conference game and continued the streak of #1 being knocked off for several weeks straight.

That loss, paired with Ohio State’s loss in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night, made both teams incredibly hungry and desperate to keep pace heading into this top ten matchup in Columbus. The crowd was mighty, the atmosphere was intense, and Deshaun Thomas showed up in a big way, but Indiana’s three-man attack of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, and Christian Watford combined for 70 points as IU shot 53% on their way to a 81-68 victory in The Schott.

It wasn’t so much any particular aspect of the game you can point to regarding how Indiana pulled this one off. Sure, they outscore the Bucks on the three-point arc and at the foul line while shooting over 50%, but more than anything it was their three best players playing at an extremely high level. IU simply didn’t let up one bit for 40 minutes. There was no lull, no run for Ohio State to go on. Once they fell behind by double digits early in the second half, they could never answer with an extended run of their own to make it a neck-and-neck game once more.

Watford hit 4-of-5 threes and made Thomas work on the defensive end. Zeller imposed his will on the Buckeye interior. Consequently, Amir Williams managed just 11 minutes, collecting four fouls. Neither him, Ravenel, or Trey McDonald, forced into action because of the foul trouble, brought much resistance. In Oladipo, the team’s best defender, we saw a wide array of offensive moves, burning the Bucks with a three, transition buckets, and halfcourt momentum-swinging power slams. All three Hoosiers share the ability to start on the perimeter, back a defender down into the post, use spin moves and fakes, and finish off the glass. Just as Wisconsin lulls you into a defensive stupor with their ball movement and big guy threes, so does Indiana with their movement, fakes, ball reversals, and post-up moves.

Coach Tom Crean of Indiana had this to say about his team’s balanced effort postgame, “We are focused so much on team. While others might have the best frontcourt or defensive backcourt in the country, we’re trying to have the best team. You have to have great players to have the best team.” I for one underestimated Indiana a bit, I think. Pre-game, I said that I thought Michigan was tougher than Indiana, but for Ohio State anyway, I don’t feel that way anymore. While OSU matches up well against Michigan’s backcourt driven team, they certainly struggle with the physical, offensively-versatile frontcourt of the Hoosiers. If the Bucks had received the non-outgoing-#1 Hoosiers, still fat and happy, I think it would’ve given them a necessary edge, but when IU took that hit, it made it difficult to offset the razor-sharp edge of this talented bunch.

For Deshaun Thomas, there wasn’t much to complain about in terms of production. I personally expected Victor Oladipo, one of the top three or four defenders in the nation, to shut Thomas down. That did not happen, however, as Thomas was the only consistent offensive weapon for the Bucks throughout the game, something that will likely grace the epitaph of this season when it’s all said and done. Deshaun accounted for 26 points on 8-of-20 shooting to go with 7 rebounds, but it was the lack of a second scorer until late in the second half that doomed the Bucks.

LaQuinton Ross once again showed that he should be garnering more minutes from Matta’s struggling offensive group. In 21 minutes, Ross made half of his ten shot attempts for 11 points. He scored five critical points on back-to-back buckets in the first half to give them 16-14 and 18-16 leads. You can see the confidence growing as Ross doesn’t just sit and wait for a shot attempt, instead getting the ball on the wing and looking to drive as well as hitting the offensive glass when the time comes. I really like Ross, and at times, I wish Matta was as crazy about him as some of the diehard Buckeye basketball fans. We’ve seen glimpses of it, and now I want more.

As for Aaron Craft, he slowed Jordan Hulls with just a 2-for-9 game and 5 points. It was a 7-point surge when it was too late by Craft that got him to 16 points for the game, but Craft settled into his more customary role on offense, and because no one stepped up, mainly Smith Jr. or Ross to another level, it wasn’t enough to trade points punch-for-punch with Indiana.

Thad Matta had this to say about his team and the immediate foul trouble for Amir Williams guarding Zeller, “Amir [Williams] going out early was a big blow to us defensively. He has the ability to alter a lot of shots inside and he has been playing well for us. The game also seemed to be called a little tighter, but we just didn’t adjust.” Much tighter indeed as the trio of Eades, Eades, and Steratore called 42 fouls (27 on the Buckeyes) and saw 48 free throws shot (28 by IU). The officials didn’t decide this game, but it did change up the flow a bit compared to the brilliantly flowing Michigan game.

I really liked this additional statement from Matta, who always seems to have the pulse of his team, “Experience is a big part of imposing your will on a team. This team has shown they can play great basketball, but don’t have a ton of experience in imposing their will.” And I completely agree with this assessment. This is only the second game all season that you could argue that the Buckeyes didn’t compete down the stretch, and really they were within 6-8 points most of the second half until they had to start the foul parade. They’ve played Kansas, Duke, Michigan, and Michigan State all incredibly tough in losses, three of those away from home. They got blasted by Illinois, sure, but every team has a stinker game over the course of a season. This team still has all the talent to win the toughest of conferences and go deep into the tournament. But, it’s all about showing up in six different one-game frames in the tournament. I’ve seen much better teams than this year’s Buckeyes fall victim to matchups or an impossibly bad shooting night (back when those were uncommon). This team has the defense to force that type of will on a team more talented than them in a one-game set. We’ll see how the Buckeyes are playing come conference tourney time. That will give us a little preview of what to expect, and Matta ALWAYS has his guys ready for the Chicago tournament.

Failing to gain the split, OSU falls to 7-4 in conference, trailing Indiana and Michigan State by two games and Michigan and Wisconsin by one game. At this rate, it’s looking like Ohio State will need to run the table to grab a share of the Big Ten regular season title. It’s a lofty request, considering trips to Bloomington and Madison are still on the docket along with hosting the Spartans and Gophers. This week, the Buckeyes take on Northwestern at home on Thursday night, followed by a rematch with the Badgers on Sunday in Madison.

(Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP)

  • MrCleaveland

    It’s February Madness in the Big Ten. Love it.

  • @TheDeePagel

    Everyone is talking about how great IU’s offense was….I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes, because I know it will too many, but the officials completely neutered our defensive effort. They call ticky-tacks on us all day, and could not get the same on the other end. DT was screaming “And 1″ all game, and nothing.

    For a team that lives on defensive this was a major problem. With a different officiating crew, this game is a lot different.

    I know this sounds like the ol’ it was the refs fault – but if you watched the game you saw it was true.

  • @TheDeePagel

    I am allowing us one more loss to finish 13-5 in conference. I am assuming that loss comes @ Indiana. Means we need to sweep NWestern, beat Minny on our court, beat Wiscy @ Wiscy, and beat Sparty and Illinois on our floor. Can be done. Needs to be done.

  • Mongoose

    Totally agree. Was hoping the bias toward Indiana during the first half would shift to OSU for the second half, but it never changed. It was blatant and obvious to the point where the OSU players finally became resigned to it. Not sure how Matta kept his cool – I would’ve been thrown out of the game in the first 5 minutes! No excuse for it because it ruined what could have been a really good game…