Ohio St.-Indiana Preview
Indiana clinched at least a piece of its first Big Ten championship in 11 years over the weekend, but it can have that title all to itself with a win in its home finale.
Ohio State, on the other hand, would be more than happy to settle for a share.
The second-ranked Hoosiers look to claim their first outright league title in 20 years on Tuesday night against the No. 14 Buckeyes, who can stay alive for a portion of the league's regular-season prize with a fourth straight victory.
Instead of fleeing from a program coming off a six-win season, which was reeling from NCAA-imposed sanctions and had become a laughingstock around the league, Hoosiers seniors Derek Elston, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford embraced the challenge and over the next four years fought the long, arduous journey to get back on top of the college basketball world.
"They've meant a lot to me," sophomore leading scorer Cody Zeller said. "They've helped me out coming into college and I know (freshman guard) Yogi Ferrell would say the same thing, just bringing us along because they've been through so much. When you're around someone for practices, traveling, and games you get to know each other very well and it's a relationship that I'm sure we'll carry on for the rest of our lives."
Zeller ensured Indiana (25-4, 13-3) a share of the Big Ten title on Saturday by scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 73-60 win over Iowa, bouncing back from scoring just nine points and fouling out in last Tuesday's loss at Minnesota.
With Indiana's seniors set to be honored before tip-off against the Buckeyes, Zeller wants to send them out with the program's first outright Big Ten title since 1992-93.
"It's only a share of the Big Ten championship so we went right back to work (Sunday). We want to get this win (Tuesday) night and have it all for ourselves," Zeller said.
The Hoosiers will head to Chicago as this year's Big Ten tournament championship favorite, one of the few tourneys Indiana has never won.
But first it will get a look at two of the teams it could be facing deep into its stay at the United Center - and perhaps a few weeks later in the latter part of the NCAA tournament. After facing the Buckeyes, whom the Hoosiers beat 81-68 in Columbus on Feb. 10, Zeller and company conclude the regular season at No. 7 Michigan on Sunday.
Ohio State (21-7, 11-5) needs to win in Bloomington, beat Illinois on Sunday and have the Hoosiers fall to the Wolverines to grab a share of its fourth straight Big Ten title.
"They're not the only ones playing for something,'' Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft said. "We're also playing for something, too.''
Craft scored 16 points and Big Ten leading scorer Deshaun Thomas had 26 in the loss to Indiana last month, but Ohio State didn't do much right at the other end. Zeller had 24 points and eight rebounds, Watford had 20 and Victor Oladipo did seemingly anything he wanted, finishing with 26 points, eight boards and two steals.
The Buckeyes have won four of five since then, though, most notably beating Michigan State 68-60 on Feb. 24 before topping Northwestern 63-53 in Evanston on Thursday. Ohio State is shooting just 41.9 percent in that stretch, but has a plus-5.4 turnover margin and has held its opponent to 60 points or fewer in all four victories.
"A couple of weeks ago we got down and kind of took a step back,'' Craft said. "We hadn't really been in that position since I've been in college. We've kind of always controlled our own destiny. But as a team we did a good job of really picking ourselves up and understanding there's still a lot to play for.''
Ohio State's biggest problem is that it's generally struggled against its best competition - particularly outside of Columbus. The Buckeyes are 0-5 against ranked opponents on the road, most recently getting drubbed 71-49 at then-No. 20 Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
They'll try to draw strength from a similar situation a year ago when they take to the court Tuesday night. Ohio State's last road win over a ranked opponent came in its 2012 regular-season finale at No. 5 Michigan State. Without that win, the Buckeyes' streak of regular-season conference titles would have ended at three.
"We did that last year at Michigan State, and we feel like we can do that again at IU,'' Thomas said.