Ohio State game crucial to season’s trajectory

The NCAA selection committee revealed its top 16 seeds for next month’s tournament on Saturday morning, offering a real-time look at where the top teams in the field would operate if the field began play today.

Indiana, of course, wasn’t included in that group.

But six previous Hoosier opponents were, including three teams — No. 8 Michigan State, No. 12 Marquette and No. 15 Louisville — that IU managed to beat.

It was a reminder that for as bad as 2019 has been to Indiana, the Hoosiers’ postseason resume remains weirdly relevant. And even for a IU team that has lost eight of its past nine games, all is not lost. There’s still a postseason to play for.

Sunday afternoon’s game against Ohio State won’t do much to bolster IU’s resume, but a loss would poison Indiana’s hopes of remaining in the NCAA Tournament conversation. To even be considered for the tournament, you have to win home games. That’s something Indiana has struggled with during its current three-game skid at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. You also have to beat comparable competition, a challenge that awaits IU at the end of the weekend.

It’s a crucial game for Indiana, both in terms of its ability to turn its recently-improved play into something meaningful, and for its ability to separate itself from an opposing team enduring a similar experience.

Both the Hoosiers (13-10, 4-8) and Buckeyes (15-7, 5-6) find themselves locked inside the middle of the Big Ten standings and teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble. While IU found itself stuck inside of a four-week, seven-game losing streak that shook the foundation it built during a 12-2 run through the non-conference season, Ohio State dealt with its own issues.

The Buckeyes started the calendar year with five consecutive losses, eventually dropping six of the first seven games they played in 2019. In a month’s time, Ohio State went from 12-1 to 13-7.

Unforced errors were partly to blame. The Buckeyes make a lot of those, and rank last in the Big Ten with a turnover percentage of 20.9. They’re also a somewhat limited team offensively, at least when looking for consistent contributions from players not named Kaleb Wesson. When the foul-prone Wesson isn’t on the floor, Ohio State relies on making its perimeter shots.

After back-to-back home wins over Rutgers and Penn State — albeit neither of them particularly impressive — Ohio State has found at least a small degree of traction to start February.

Indiana is looking for the same.

Although Thursday’s loss to 20th-ranked Iowa was a disappointment, the Hoosiers showed signs of better play.

Energy and toughness, two qualities largely absent late in January, were apparent once again. So, too, was the ball movement IU coach Archie Miller has begged to see all year.

It wasn’t always crisp in the Iowa loss, and the Hawkeyes’ ability to cash in on IU’s early turnovers was a major reason for their victory. But Indiana finished the night with 17 assists on 26 made field goals. That’s progress.

Indiana has now tallied 38 assists across its past two games, matching its total from the previous four games combined. IU has also enhanced its offense in other ways, hitting 17 3-pointers across the past two games, feeding those shots with better inside-out movement.

Sixteen of those 17 3-pointers have come off assists. Of those 16, junior forward De’Ron Davis has been credited with assists on six.

“Our zone offense in the second half, we end up shooting 49 percent for the game,” Miller said after the Iowa loss. “In the first half, I think from three, we were 4-for-12, so in the second half (we were better), obviously. (We were) 7-for-21 in the game with some timely ones. But our offense, to me, you can scrutinize it and you can go through it, and our defense wasn’t able to finish it, finish possessions (Thursday). And we had that on Saturday (at Michigan State).

“We were able to get one-time stops and rebounds and be able to hang in there. (Against Iowa) we fouled, we didn’t come up with the loose ones, the long ones, and they made some big ones and some tough ones, as well, at the end of the clock. Like I said, they are really good, and we’ll take this and we’ve got to get better from it. We’ve a fast turnaround and Ohio State on Sunday, so it’s going to be the same thing.”

For Indiana, the Ohio State matchup is not a must-win game. But it’s darn close — at least if Indiana has designs of making a late-season tournament push and remaining relevant in the postseason conversation.

Winning home games, especially those against comparable opponents, is a requirement if the Hoosiers hope to follow through.

With Ohio State in town, the stakes are clear.

“It’s gonna be a great (game),” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. That environment there is one of the best in our league and we know that. We’re gonna need to play really well.”