COLUMBUS — Christian Watford is a pretty good player, a 6-foot-9 guy who can step out behind the arc and make four of five shots as he did Sunday during a 20-point, six-rebound performance.
But here’s the thing. He’s arguably the third best player on Indiana’s roster.
And therein is the startling difference between the Hoosiers and any number of teams, including Ohio State, which had trouble competing in a much-anticipated battle of top-10 teams at Value City Arena.
Victor Oladipo scored 26, Cody Zeller notched 24, and Watford had 20 for Indiana. That’s 70, all told, and more than the Buckeyes managed in an 81-68 loss.
“They’re good players,” said Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas. “They didn’t force the issue. They were relaxed and played relaxed.”
Oladipo made 8 of 10 shots from the field and 9 of 10 from the free-throw line in a tightly officiated game. Zeller was 8 of 11 on both lines of the box score. Watford, on top of his 3-point prowess, was perfect on four free throw attempts.
“It’s very tough. … I mean, look at the percentage they got,” Aaron Craft, Ohio State’s point guard, said. “It’s tough to win with three of their guys scoring over 20. But we didn’t play our best. It’s definitely not the same effort we had in the Michigan game.”
This was OSU’s second straight loss, and that hadn’t happened in 121 games. That’s how good the Buckeyes have been the last few seasons. They are not that good now despite Tom Crean, Indiana’s coach, delivering some polite lip-service by calling the Buckeyes “the real deal” and the venue “an incredibly tough environment.”
As Craft referenced, OSU was coming off a 76-74 overtime loss at Michigan that actually created expectations for Sunday’s game.
The rub? Craft, the Buckeyes’ best defender, can make life tough on UM’s top scorer, Trey Burke. But OSU had almost nobody capable of defending the long, rangy trio that led the Indiana assault Sunday. Amir Williams might have made a difference for the home team, but foul trouble limited the 6-11 sophomore to just 11 minutes on the court, which coach Thad Matta called “a big blow … he has the ability to alter a lot of shots inside.”
Without him, the Buckeyes altered almost nothing against the Hoosiers, who shot 59 percent in the second half.
Ohio State is 17-6, but it breaks down to 1-6 against Top 25 teams and 16-0 against everybody else.
“We have had our chances against ranked teams this year, but we haven’t been able to get wins,” Matta said.
The Buckeyes’ streaks of four straight Big Ten tournament title games and three straight NCAA Sweet 16 appearances would appear to be in jeopardy unless they can rely on someone other than Thomas for points (26 on Sunday) and Craft for stops.
“Those guys made big shots and were tough to defend,” Craft said of the Hoosiers.
The Big Ten is the nation’s best conference. Five teams — Indiana, Michigan, OSU, Michigan State, and Minnesota — are in the Top 20, and Wisconsin might argue it should be too.
The No. 1 spot in the national polls has been a hot potato. The best teams have been beating up on one another. But most have been able to hold serve at home.
The Buckeyes weren’t up to that task Sunday.
OSU graduate Bob Knight might believe, as he said on his taped pregame video, that there is nothing better than Buckeye basketball.
But ex-Indiana coach Bob Knight would certainly find a lot about these Hoosiers to like.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.