Ohio State and Michigan, the most fierce of rivals. The stark contrast of scarlet and gray on maize and blue has had some epic ramifications on the gridiron for the last century. However, with the resurgence of both basketball programs, these two enemies can work together toward a common goal, another split of the Big Ten title, repeating as regular season conference champions. To do it, however, they’ll need to do something that has only happened four times so far this season, beat the Indiana Hoosiers. For the Buckeyes, that means going into Assembly Hall and coming away victorious. That’s something only the Wisconsin Badgers have accomplished this season.
Last season, by virtue of beating the Michigan State Spartans in the Breslin Center, the Buckeyes captured a share of the Big Ten crown, joining Michigan State who had locked up the share prior to the game. They also brought Michigan along for the ride and a 3-way tie. The Big Ten Network clips of the Wolverines cheering and celebrating for a Buckeye win remain some of the stranger television I’ve seen. If the Buckeyes are able to pull off the unthinkable on Tuesday, the tables will be turned with Michigan poised to carry themselves and Ohio State to a regular season title piece along with Indiana and potentially the winner of this week’s Wisconsin-Michigan State tilt. It would be the first four-way split of the Big Ten title on the books (Ohio State vacated its share of a 4-way split in 2002) since 1926 when Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, and Iowa did it.
The Buckeyes have been close to that banner victory on the road. There was the overtime thriller in Ann Arbor with the controversial ending all around. There was the trip to East Lansing that ended with a panicked three-point attempt by Shannon Scott and a 3-point loss. This time, they’ll need to deliver against the most offensively efficient team in the nation that beat them by 13 points on OSU’s home floor. On that Sunday afternoon three weeks back, the Buckeyes couldn’t stay out of foul trouble as Aaron Craft and Evan Ravenel fouled out, and Amir Williams was unable to stay on the floor for long against Cody Zeller. The trio of Zeller, Victor Oladipo, and Christian Watford shot a jaw-dropping 22-of-32 from the field and 21-of-25 from the line for 70 of the team’s 81 points.
If the Buckeyes truly belong in that top five company in the conference, they will keep it close in Bloomington. Wisconsin came away with the five-point win, Michigan State lost by just five, and Michigan fell by eight points. Now, the Buckeyes look to avoid the road disasters that were the Illinois (19-point loss) and Wisconsin (22-point loss) as they face an even tougher opponent. Their best chance will be to outscore and frustrate the backcourt of Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell, who had just 6 points combined of 2-of-10 shooting at The Schott. Indiana’s three best outside shooters in Oladipo, Hulls, and Watford all shoot it at a 48.5% clip or higher from long range, and it’s a huge part of Indiana’s game with them averaging 7.5 threes made per contest and shooting over 41% as a team. Take Hulls’ 1-for-7 effort out of the mix, and the rest of the IU squad made 6-of-11 against Ohio State. A key is going to be Scott, Smith Jr., and Thompson raising the level of their perimeter defense to that of Craft, who will undoubtedly cover Hulls once again.
Indiana shot 61% from inside the arc against Ohio State, and if Zeller and Watford get the same clean looks and post feeds that they got in their earlier matchup, Ohio State will be in for a long night. It’s up to Amir Williams, Evan Ravenel, and Thomas to stay out of foul trouble. If IU shoots 28 free throws again, things will most likely not have gone according to plan.
The single most important factor in this game will be the need for a one-game transcendent showing from someone other than Deshaun Thomas. The Buckeye’s leading scorer will have to be on his game sure, but with Oladipo covering him, it’s unlikely that Thomas will put up another 26-point performance as he did on the first go-around. No, instead, they’ll need probably two of either Craft (8 double digit scoring conference games), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (7 double digit in conference), or LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson (3 each) to deliver with a 15 point performance. Across the frontline, it is absolutely impossible for OSU to match the Hoosiers in scoring or offensive production, but the best they can hope for is that all three aren’t on their game at the same time. When they are, like in Columbus, this team is the best that college basketball has to offer.
A victory Tuesday would be nice, a season-best and a confidence and resume builder. Still, to get to a body-of-work goal as in the conference title, Michigan will have to avenge the 8-point loss in Bloomington. The Wolverines will be looking to cap off an undefeated season at home on Senior Night. And of course, the Buckeyes will need to beat the resurgent Illini in The Schott that same day, avenging their own loss.
Those who have closely monitored this year’s team have seen quite the array of peaks and valleys. They’ve battled Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They’ve stunk up the joint against Illinois and Wisconsin while barely holding on against Northwestern twice and Nebraska once. But, if the Buckeyes can do what many think is highly unlikely, they’ll at least maybe give hope and confidence to a team still searching for an identity heading into the conference tournament, normally Thad Matta’s bread and butter.
(Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP)