On Saturday, while a large swath of Buckeye Nation was celebrating Ohio State's College Football Playoff National Championship, Thad Matta and his team were preparing for what may well be the most important week of their season. With just eleven games remaining in the regular season, Ohio State will host two of the Big Ten's four ranked teams this week as Indiana and Maryland visit Columbus. These are two games the Buckeyes sorely need to win to help bolster their resume for the postseason in March.
"It is so tough to win on the road in this conference," senior Sam Thompson said on Saturday. "Anytime you have a chance to get two at home you have to get it."
Ohio State (15-5, 4-3 in the Big Ten) is a team that has yet to garner a signature win this season. The Buckeyes best victory, according to the KenPom rankings, was a double-overtime win on the road against No. 56 Minnesota. The Hoosiers (41st) and Terrapins (21st) are both tough opponents, and a win against either would be Ohio State's best of the season.
The Buckeyes lost 69-66 to Indiana in Bloomington two weeks ago, and know they must bring a better team effort on Sunday if they hope to exact revenge.
"They had more energy, more intensity than us," Thompson said. "They executed better than us. We have to change that tomorrow."
Ohio State has yet to really play a complete 40-minute game this season, and a lack of energy at the beginning of games has caused the Buckeyes to dig big early holes. That early game lethargy is one reason Matta switched up his starting lineup Thursday night in Evanston against Northwestern, benching Amir Williams and Marc Loving in favor of Jae'Sean Tate and Anthony Lee. Despite falling behind by double digits early to the Wildcats and squandering a double digit leadof its own late, Ohio State battled, got a much-needed win, and built a little momentum.
"To get down the way we got down, to battle back the way we did was big for us," Thompson said. "That's a good building block."
D'Angelo Russell, who on Friday was named to the midseason watch list for the Wayman Tisdale Award that honors the country's top freshman, continued his sterling play against Northwestern. The Louisville native put up a career-high 33 points and game-highs with 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Russell also made the most ridiculous pass of the college basketball season in the game.
The Buckeyes will need Russell to brings his A-game against the Hoosiers and Terps. The freshman had a horrific game in Bloomington, scoring 13 points on a horrid 3-15 shooting.
"We didn't play particularly well," Matta said of the first meeting with Indiana. "But we're playing better. Our defense was really good, particularly in the 2nd half [at Northwestern].
The Hoosiers (15-4, 5-1 in the Big Ten) put on a clinic on Thursday at Assembly Hall in thrashing the Terrapins 89-70. Tom Crean's squad made 15-22 three-point shots (68.2 percent) and shot 60 percent from the field as a team.
"We're just improving," Crean said. "They've been improving all year and what these guys have done over a period of time is bond closer and they've really worked hard, I would say, to control what they can control."
Maryland (17-3, 5-2 in the Big Ten), in their first season as a member of the Big Ten, boasts a stout defense, a balanced offensive attack, and one of Russell's fellow freshman phenoms, Melo Trimble. The Terps play Northwestern in College Park on Sunday, and will be looking to get back to their winning ways.
Ohio State is coming off a stretch in which it played four of five games on the road and must defend its home court this week to bolster its NCAA tournament hopes. Wins over Indiana and Maryland could be just what the Buckeyes need to build some momentum and finish the Big Ten regular season strong.
"I think our best basketball hopefully is ahead of us," Matta said. "That's where you're trying to find the answers to consistent basketball. Every team I have ever had here has found its stride."
Ohio State and Indiana tip-off at 1:30 pm ET on Sunday. The game will be televised on CBS.