One week ago, Ohio State seemed firmly locked into a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, three losses later, the Buckeyes are in dire need of a victory to stay on the bubble.
The three defeats to Purdue, Northwestern and most recently to Wisconsin came without Ohio State’s leading scorer, sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson, who head coach Chris Holtmann said will be returning for the Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday for the Buckeyes.
As the No. 8 seed, Ohio State will take on No. 9 seed Indiana, a team it narrowly defeated on the road 55-52 back on Feb. 10.
“We were fortunate to get that one there,” Holtmann said. “They missed some shots that I’m sure that they’ll probably make.”
Ohio State (18-13, 8-12 Big Ten)
G — C.J. Jackson — Senior, 12.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.4 apg
G — Luther Muhammad — Freshman, 8.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.8 apg
F — Andre Wesson — Junior, 8.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.7 apg
F — Kyle Young — Sophomore, 6.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.9 apg
F — Kaleb Wesson — Sophomore, 14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 apg
Indiana (17-14, 8-12 Big Ten)
G — Romeo Langford — Freshman, 16.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.3 apg
G — Aljami Durham — Sophomore, 7.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.5 apg
G — Rob Phinisee — Freshman, 7.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.9 apg
F — Justin Smith — Sophomore, 8.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.7 apg
F — Juwan Morgan — Senior, 15.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
After losing 12 out of 13 games in the middle of their season, the Hoosiers come into the Big Ten tournament with four straight wins, including victories against then-No. 19 Wisconsin and then-No. 6 Michigan State, both coming into the tournament as ranked teams.
The improved play has partly come from added depth to help the team’s pair of stars: freshman guard Romeo Langford and senior forward Juwan Morgan.
Sophomore forward Justin Smith piled on 24 points against the Spartans, while freshman guard Rob Phinisee and junior guard Devonte Green have had games of 17 and 16 points against Illinois and Rutgers, respectively.
But while getting added help, Langford and Morgan have thrived, each putting up 20 points or more in the most recent win against the Scarlet Knights.
“Morgan has played like a man possessed,” Holtmann said. “They’ve got good depth … obviously it’s a group that’s playing very well.”
Indiana ranks No. 41 on KenPom with Ohio State at No. 44, while the teams respectively fell to No. 51 and No. 55 in the NET rankings, the major ranking that decides the NCAA Tournament.
Many see this matchup as a potential play-in game for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and senior guard C.J. Jackson is aware of how important this game is for his team.
“This is kind of why you come to universities and this conference, just to be able to put yourself in the best position to make a run in the NCAA Tournament,” Jackson said. “We have our goal right in front of us. I guess you could say we’re right there, and when you accomplish that, that’s kind of what you live for.”
The Hoosiers have the No. 2 shooting percentage in the Big Ten, hitting 46 percent of their attempts, but are last in the conference from behind the arc, shooting 31 percent from 3.
That ineffectiveness from 3 has not gone away, with Indiana shooting 4-of-18 from deep in its dominant win against Rutgers. But the team has molded into an offense that runs on its players that work from the inside.
This is not the same team that Ohio State squeaked out a win against back in February, when the Hoosiers beat one team in a 48-day span.
Heading into the opening game of the Big Ten tournament for both teams, one team is heating up and one has lost three straight without its star. And this matchup could mean life or death come Selection Sunday.
“We’re just focused on doing our best to be our best, and to play our best, and to focus in on as small of segments as we can in terms of our play, and not think in terms of as grand a scale,” Holtmann said. “The unspoken is always there, guys understand what tournament play is all about, and if we don’t have great preparation and play with tremendous urgency, then it’ll be a short stay.”
Ohio State takes on Indiana at the United Center in Chicago at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.