The stakes are the same for both Indiana and Ohio State entering the regular season finale.
All that’s left to play for is Big Ten and National Invitation Tournament seeding.
The winner of Saturday’s matchup in Columbus has a chance to avoid getting stuck in a bottom-four matchup on the Big Ten Tournament’s opening day next Wednesday in Washington, D.C. For the Hoosiers, even a win may not be good enough.
Indiana’s late-season slide, which now includes eight losses in the past 10 games, has the Hoosiers on the verge of their worst finish in conference play since they ended in 11th place during the 2010-11 season. Entering Saturday, Indiana is in line for a No. 12 seed, which would mean a tournament-opening matchup with Penn State at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Hoosiers can climb as high as the No. 10 seed, securing a single bye in the process, by beating the Buckeyes and Nebraska losing at home to Michigan on Sunday. The Cornhuskers hold the upper hand over the Hoosiers thanks to their 87-83 win over IU at Assembly Hall on Dec. 28.
The No. 10 seed would be the best case scenario at this point for Indiana. The Hoosiers will be the No. 11 seed with a win and a Nebraska win. They’ll be the No. 12 seed with a loss and a Penn State loss at Iowa, and they could drop as far as the No. 13 seed with a loss and a Penn State win.
“Every day we have an opportunity to improve,” IU center Thomas Bryant said. “That’s what our focus has been. It’s always tough to play on the road in the league. We have to be aggressive and leave everything out there on the floor. Our coaches do a great job of getting us ready and we have to follow what they teach us. Every play is important and every game becomes important.”
The Hoosiers, like everyone else at this point, are down to only one more regular-season game in this season of frustration.
Barring a run through the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers’ only postseason hopes rest in the NIT. Even securing a bid to that tournament is not guaranteed.
According to the latest NIT projections published Thursday at NYCbuckets.com, Indiana is a No. 4 seed.
A win over Ohio State, which is No. 66 in the NCAA RPI, would help Indiana, itself the No. 94 team in the RPI. So, too, would at least one more win in the conference tournament. But even then, a victory over the Buckeyes would carry more weight than a potential victory over the likes of Penn State (No. 96).
Ohio State has been inconsistent throughout Big Ten play, but has a chance Saturday to string together three consecutive wins for the first time since November. Prior to beating the Nittany Lions on Tuesday, Ohio State dealt a blow to Wisconsin’s Big Ten title hopes with an 83-73 win over the Badgers at Value City Arena.
“Ohio State is playing really well, and it’s their senior day,” IU guard James Blackmon Jr. said. “They have won a couple of games, and that has helped their confidence. We have to make sure we follow the game plan the coaches give us and not have any letdowns. We have to lock in on defense and take good shots and be smart on offense.”
Buckeyes leading scorer Jae’Sean Tate has scored in double figures in 27 of 30 games and delivered the game-winning layup with less than four seconds remaining in Tuesday’s win at Penn State.
“Ohio State has been playing really good basketball and, obviously, they will play with great energy and passion in their last home game of the season,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “Our job is to go in and set the tempo, defend the penetration and 3-point line the best that we can and work hard to be in the mix on the free throw game.”