COLUMBUS, Ohio – When Ohio State and Indiana take the court this afternoon, they will do so as two teams desperate for a win. The Buckeyes have lost six of their last eight after a blazing start to the season and can't afford to lose another game at home, while another loss for the Hoosiers would be their third in a row and would erase almost all of the momentum they gained from beating No. 11 Michigan State last week. Also for Indiana, a third straight loss would start conjuring memories of its awful 1-12 stretch last season that torpedoed its NCAA chances. With all of that on the line today, we should see two teams motivated and ready to go from the start.
The Hoosiers won the first matchup between these teams, 66-54 in Bloomington on Jan. 11, back when Ohio State was ranked No. 11. That outcome means little now, however. As Indiana has proven all season, winning on the road is a much different task than winning at Assembly Hall, especially in Big Ten play. The Hoosiers finally picked up a conference road victory last week over Nebraska, but then fell apart in the second half against Penn State on Wednesday, proving that those away-from-home demons haven't been completely exorcised yet.
The key for the Hoosiers will be to get to the foul line. All season, Indiana has made up for its intermittent offensive lapses with an ability to draw fouls and pick up cheap points on free throws. In its losses to Maryland and the Nittany Lions in the last week, however, the Hoosiers have combined to shoot only 20 foul shots, far less than the 24.2 they have shot per game this season. Worse, Indiana has struggled to keep its opponents off the foul line, as well. The Terps and Penn State both easily eclipsed Indiana's free throw totals as IU struggled to defend inside without fouling. Against the Nittany Lions, Joey Brunk, De'Ron Davis and Justin Smith all found themselves in foul trouble. Coach Archie Miller professed his team's interior defense "nonexistent" recently, which is a problem in the Big Ten, with its bevy of talented bigs.
One of those bigs is Ohio State's 6-foot-9 junior forward Kaleb Wesson, who is averaging 13.9 points and 9.6 rebounds. He's one of the savviest post players in the Big Ten, possessing a variety of herky-jerky moves around the rim, and he can also step out and shoot 3-pointers, making 40.9% from beyond the arc this season. He went just 3 for 11 from the field the first time against the Hoosiers, as they made everything difficult for him. If IU can't be tougher in the middle than it was against Penn State and Maryland, Wesson might take over the game and carry the Buckeyes to a win. Brunk, Davis and Trayce Jackson-Davis will do everything they can to get Wesson in foul trouble, which he is prone to do.
The Hoosiers' roster availability will also have a significant impact on this game. They missed Jerome Hunter (illness) and Race Thompson (still suffering the effects of his hard fall against Michigan State) against Penn State and it's unclear if either of them will play today. If they don't, that means more minutes going to Damezi Anderson and right now it's difficult to justify having him on the court. He is a shooter who has little confidence in his jump shot and he doesn't really move well in the flow of the offense. He's big and strong and could turn into a good player eventually, but he's not that right now and Hunter is already far superior, even as he continues working his way back from a full year without seeing the court.
Ohio State will be without freshman guard D.J. Carton, its third-leading scorer, as he deals with some mental health issues he has been battling. Carton wrote a long message on social media Friday, explaining his decision to step away from the basketball program for a while. Without editorializing too much, I find it admirable that he was willing to share that with the public and that the Buckeyes are supporting him as he tries to get healthy.