This may be the most entertaining Sunday of the season so far, or at least one of the games should be extremely entertaining. Who would have thought after the first month of the season that Ohio State at Indiana would be a battle to stay undefeated in Big Ten play?
Game of the Day: Ohio State Buckeyes at Indiana Hoosiers (1:30pm ET - CBS)
Nothing comes easy in Assembly Hall, but the Buckeyes have been on a roll. Unfortunately for Thad Matta and Ohio State, the Hoosiers have also been rolling. OSU's last lost was at UConn on December 12th. IU's last defeat was ten days earlier at Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Since the Duke game, Indiana has improved their defense and continues to score with the best of them. Now the biggest question for this team is replacing the production of James Blackmon Jr. who is now out for the season. Against Wisconsin on Tuesday, IU relied on solid defense and big games from two freshman, OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant. One issue to look out for from the Hoosiers is turnovers, they had 19 against Wisconsin.
After a bunch of head-scratching losses to start the season, Ohio State righted the ship with a drubbing of Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. Now, OSU is 3-0 in conference play and just knocked off a scrappy Northwestern squad in Evanston. This team has a lot of talent, but has had their own struggles with turnovers and playing as a unit. The key factor to their recent success has been good team defense. On offense, forwards Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop lead the way, averaging a combined 27 points per game. Freshman JaQuan Lyle is averaging an impressive 5.1 assists per game, which is just 0.7 behind IU's senior leader Yogi Ferrell.
Expect a tight game as strength will meet strength when Indiana has the ball. It should come down to whether or not Ohio State's inconsistent offense can find success against the improved defense of the Hoosiers.
On paper, the most interesting thing about this game might be that I'm driving over from Indiana to watch it. Illinois has played very poorly at times this season while muddling through a myriad of injuries. Their loss to Michigan State on Thursday was downright hard to watch. On the other hand, Purdue bounced back from an ugly loss to Iowa by running away with an 87-70 win over Michigan (sans Caris LeVert). Most predictions say Purdue should have this game won without too much trouble. However, the State Farm Center, like most Big Ten arenas, is not an easy place to get a win and even this depleted Illini squad has a lot of quality players.
Purdue will look to get it inside and have the best center duo, A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, in the conference hammer out a win against Illinois' smaller and less experienced frontcourt. The Boilers should also have a sizable rebounding advantage, Michigan State out-rebounded Illinois 46-27 without Denzel Valentine. The Illini will have Kendrick Nunn back after missing the last game for the birth of his son. His return should be enough to help John Groce's team avoid a repeat of Thurday night, but will it be enough to help secure a major upset at home? Anything is possible, especially on Lou Henson bobblehead night.
The biggest storyline going into this game will be the expected return of Denzel Valentine. The senior guard was having a NPOY-caliber season before sitting out due to surgery on his left knee. His first test after returning will be the somewhat befuddling Nittany Lions. Penn State has beaten some decent teams this season, and probably should have knocked off Maryland in their first Big Ten game, but they have also been blown out by teams that aren't that much better than them, like Michigan and especially Duquesne. PSU gets most of their scoring from a three-headed monster of Shep Garner, Brandon Taylor, and Payton Banks. This is a bit odd if you are a long-time Big Ten fan and used to seeing one Penn State guard average 20 ppg while trying to drag his team to wins.
I expect the Spartans to be a better team after having to survive without their star player. With guys like Eron Harris, Bryn Forbes, and Deyonta Davis, MSU is an elite team without Valentine. With him, they are something special. Michigan State should be heavily favored in this one, but just like the Purdue-Illinois game, anything can happen in the Big Ten, particularly on the road.