Indiana's road to a Big Ten regular season championship got quite a bit tougher with Thursday's loss at Illinois. With road games against No. 10 Ohio State, No. 18 Minnesota, No. 3 Michigan and No. 12 Michigan State still left on the schedule, the top-ranked Hoosiers have some major -- MAJOR -- work to do to capture the program's first outright Big Ten title since 1993 (shared one in 2002).
The Hoosiers (20-3, 8-2) begin their uphill climb with Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Ohio State (17-5, 7-3), which will air on CBS.
Both team are coming off bitter losses. Indiana fell 74-72 at Illinois thanks to less-than-stellar play down the stretch, capped off by a defensive miscue in the final seconds that allowed the Illini's Tyler Griffey to drop in a wide-open game-winning layup at the buzzer. Ohio State dropped a 76-74 overtime decision at Michigan Tuesday night, coming up on the short end of a very iffy non-foul call in the waning seconds.
Needless to say, Sunday's tilt is a big one for both teams. The loser might as well wave goodbye to its dreams of an outright Big Ten championship.
It was hard to imagine a scenario in which Indiana could go to Champaign, play well and lose. But that's exactly what happened on Thursday night.
Yes, the Hoosiers botched some possessions down the stretch, and, yes, the final play was a catastrophe. But Indiana shot 50 percent from the field, 52 percent from 3 and 92 percent from the free throw line. It's extremely difficult to beat a team that shoots like that (and difficult to lose a game when you shoot like that), so give Illinois some credit. It was a game the Illini needed a lot more than Indiana. Subsequently, the more desperate team won, which usually happens.
Indiana and Ohio State will both be desperate, making this one a very intriguing contest.
Another reason it should be an entertaining affair is the matchup between Indiana's potent offense and Ohio State's stingy defense. The Hoosiers' second-ranked adjusted offense, according to Pomeroy, will be tested by the Buckeyes' 11th-ranked adjusted defense. Indiana scores 83.3 points per game while Ohio State allows a measly 58.1.
Ohio State has struggled, at times, to put the ball in the basket. Deshaun Thomas is by leaps and bounds the Buckeyes' top offensive weapon.
Thomas nearly has as many field goal attempts (345) as the team's next two leading shot takers -- Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith -- combined (359). Thomas, who is from Fort Wayne, is pouring in 19.9 points per game to go with 6.1 rebounds. He's a surefire All-Big Ten player and someone who shoots himself in and out of rhythm. For a guy who shoots as much as he does, his 3-point (40.0) and field goal (46.4) percentages aren't too shabby.
It'll be interesting to see who Indiana puts on Thomas. I'd guess Victor Oladipo will be the guy for most of the contest. My stab at the rest of the matchups looks like this: Kevin Ferrell-Aaron Craft (which will be a joy to watch and a great experience for Yogi to go against that kind of defender), Cody Zeller-Amir Williams, Christian Watford-Smith (basically the same type of player) and Jordan Hulls-Sam Thompson (two guys who couldn't be more opposite).
Again, those are complete guesses on my part, but two matchups -- Zeller-Williams and Yogi-Craft -- are basically, I figure, set in stone, and the rest of the dominos kind of fall in place. The only other option is putting Watford on Thomas, which may happen some since Watford has shown the ability to defend on the perimeter and down low.
Smith averages 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds. He had a breakout game the last time Indiana traveled to Columbus, lighting up the Hoosiers for a career-best 28 points. To say that was a fluke is quite the understatement. Only one other time in his career (21 points this year vs. Nebraska) has Smith gone over the 20-point mark.
Craft swipes 2.0 steals per night to go with 9.3 points. LaQuinton Ross, a 6-foot-8 post man, averages 8.0 points and is coming off a 16-point effort in the loss at Michigan, which doubled his previous season-high from any league game. Thompson -- who has as much leaping ability as any player in America and hasn't been afraid to use it against teams from this state (see: this and this) -- scores 6.9 points and snags 3.4 boards.
For Indiana, this is a gut-check game. Coming off a hard-to-swallow setback at Illinois, the Hoosiers have a chance to show some fortitude. But getting a win in Columbus, something Indiana hasn't done since the 2008-09 campaign (D.J. White and Eric Gordon) is going to be a tall task.
The way I see it, to win an outright Big Ten title, Indiana can have a maximum of four losses. That means the Hoosiers must win out at home, handle their business against the lesser teams and go 2-2 in the aforementioned four brutal road games left on the docket -- at Ohio State, at Michigan, at Minnesota and at Michigan. That's going to be difficult for any team -- maybe too difficult -- even one as good as Indiana.
It can be done, though. And Indiana can go a long way towards doing it by knocking off the Buckeyes. Either way, we should learn a lot about the makeup and resolve of this year's team from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon.