Buckeyes face tough test
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Desperate teams. Brutal scheduling. Plenty at stake.
That's the state of the Big Ten just past the midpoint of a conference race that's lived up to its billing.
That's Indiana at Ohio State Sunday. An early February game doesn't get much bigger.
No. 1 Indiana comes in off a shocking loss Thursday night at Illinois. No. 10 Ohio State comes off an overtime loss at Michigan during which the Buckeyes may have put forth their best performance of the season, at least since they beat Michigan at home in January. If it seems like the No. 1 team is losing every week, it's because it's happening.
If it feels like it's really tough for almost anybody to win on the road at this point of the season, Ohio State is focused on keeping it that way.
A few things point to the Buckeyes (17-5, 7-3) finding a way to win Sunday's game. Their home-court advantage is certainly chief among them, and their recent history of bouncing back after losses. The Buckeyes have gone since 2009-10, a national-best 121 games, since suffering losses in back-to-back games.
There's no stat or trend that will help Ohio State defend Cody Zeller, keep the Hoosiers in a halfcourt game or make enough shots early to keep the crowd as a true factor, but both teams know this would be an ideal time to start putting a run together -- and that a loss will make winning the brutal Big Ten an even tougher task.
"It's a long season," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "It's about growing as a team. It's about keeping the focus on the right things. I told our guys, 'You can't fathom at this moment how much basketball we still have to play in this season.'
"People like to dissect and be negative (after the Michigan loss) but, my gosh, we're not even close to where we want to be or close to the (end) of the season. There's a fine line in terms of you want to have a memory of the Michigan game and take things from it, but you know you can't hang on to it. You've got to move forward."
Matta is 149-13 in Columbus in his tenure at Ohio State, with four seasons of either one or no home losses. Ohio State has one home loss, to Kansas, this season, and over the last four years the Buckeyes are 9-4 against ranked opponents at home.
To its credit, Thursday night's Illinois upset was Indiana's first true road loss of the season. The Hoosiers (20-3, 8-2) lost at home to Wisconsin and in a neutral-site game in Indianapolis to Butler. Making Sunday's game even bigger for Indiana is that the Hoosiers still play at Michigan State, Michigan and Minnesota.
Sunday's game could end up being for first place. For Indiana, it could end being for the chance to take back No. 1. Or, it could be just another measuring stick, one which might be remembered but could also be forgotten with so much basketball still to be played.
"Teams are desperate," Matta said. "And it's across college basketall. It's one of those years where every game is going to be challenging."
ALL FALLING -- It was Duke on Jan. 7, Louisville on Jan. 14, Duke again on Jan. 21st, Kansas on Jan. 28th and Indiana this week.
All those teams ascended to No. 1, then lost and dropped before the next coaches' poll. No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Kansas also lost this week, too, meaning Indiana might stil be No. 1 if it wins Sunday.
About all that's certain is that winning the Big Ten is going to be a struggle, and in turn should carry some weight with the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Maybe there really isn't a clear-cut No. 1, but these Big Ten teams are facing multiple battles a week, almost every week.
ON THE RISE? -- Ohio State center Amir Williams had a career-high 9 points in the loss at Michigan and said this week he's playing the most consistent basketball of his career.
Post scoring has been a huge issue for the Buckeyes all season, and if he can continue to ascend that will be a huge bonus going forward.
He'll need to be really good against Zeller on Sunday.
A National Player of the Year candidate, the 7-foot Zeller hasn't had an outstanding year, but he's been a force in stretches and can score in a variety of ways. Williams said his keys for Sunday include limiting Zeller's transition opportunities and being physical, forcing him away from the basket in half-court situations.
When the Hoosiers are clicking, Zeller is usually having a big game.
"It's a must-win for us and it's a must-win for them," Williams said. "We're excited."