In the era of Ohio State men’s basketball under coach Thad Matta, the last game of the regular season has almost always had significance. From Matt Sylvester’s game-winning 3 against No. 1 Illinois in Matta’s first season, to clinching Big Ten championships, Matta has done his job in sending seniors out in the correct fashion.
On Sunday, when the Buckeyes (17-13, 7-10 Big Ten) battle the Indiana Hoosiers (16-14, 6-11 Big Ten), senior forward Marc Loving will be honored as the lone senior in the 2017 class.
“(Senior Days are) a little bit emotional, but you’re happy for the individual and I think in Marc’s case, I’m very excited,” Matta said. “Just from the growth that he’s made — he’s had some ups and down throughout his career, but I see it every day.”
Loving came to OSU as one of the most revered players to ever come from the competitive Toledo, Ohio, area. He was ranked as the 61st best player in the class of 2013, but many feel he never reached his full potential. Loving was asked to become a leader as a junior because of the lack of seniority on the team. His shooting percentage has gone down significantly since his sophomore season, yet remains one of OSU’s best scoring options at 12.5 points per game.
Loving said he’s not one to be emotional, but can look back on his career and know how far he has grown in the program.
“Coming into Ohio State, I really didn’t have any expectations,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t know how much playing time I was going to get. I wasn’t promised anything. You have to earn your spot.”
Normally when OSU hosts the Hoosiers at the end of the season, the hype is palpable. Not too long ago, Indiana and the Buckeyes swung at each other for the conference crown, but injuries and other factors have led OSU and Indiana to the bottom of the Big Ten in 2016-17.
However, that’s not to say the game isn’t significant. If OSU defeats the Hoosiers, the Buckeyes guarantee themselves a bye on Wednesday — the first day of the Big Ten tournament — and will be the 10 seed in the tournament.
Coach Tom Crean’s squad is ranked No. 49 in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistical ratings, where OSU checks in at No. 66. The Hoosiers average 115.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 31st in the country.
For any team in college basketball, especially those in major conferences like the Big Ten, it’s difficult to play without leading scorers. OSU has played without junior forward Keita Bates-Diop since the first conference game on Jan. 1. But when a team loses two of those players, it’s near impossible to overcome.
Crean has desperately tried to keep his team afloat with senior forward Collin Hartman and sophomore guard OG Anunoby — a former candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year — sidelined for the season with injuries, but Indiana has been sliding as of late.
Losers of six of their last seven games, the Hoosiers are also fighting to avoid the first day of the Big Ten tournament next week in Washington D.C. To do that, their top three scorers will need to do damage to the Buckeye defense in the halfcourt. Junior guards James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson average 16.8 and 12.8 points per game, with sophomore center Thomas Bryant adding another 12.8.
Johnson and Bryant were two players who were in foul trouble in the Hoosiers’ last game against Purdue, which ultimately crowned the Boilermakers as regular-season champs. OSU isn’t a great rebounding team, so staying out of foul trouble and owning the boards could be a vital piece to the puzzle for an Indiana victory.
Another key for Indiana is if Johnson can end his shooting slump. Since Indiana started its skid on Feb. 5 at Wisconsin, Johnson is shooting 20 for 67 (29.9 percent) from the field. But like the Hoosiers have as a team — sporting victories over No. 1 Kansas and No. 5 North Carolina — Johnson has shown ability to catch fire quickly.
“They’re a tough matchup in terms of what they do and what they’re capable of doing,” Matta said. “Our defense has got to be at an all-time high tomorrow or we’re in trouble.”
Indiana’s defense is one of the worst in the Big Ten, allowing over 77 points per game in conference play. OSU sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle is leading the conference in 3-point shooting at 51 percent in league games. Lyle is also coming off two of his best games of the season, scoring 17 points each in wins over Wisconsin and Penn State.
Matta said that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Lyle and fellow sophomore point guard C.J. Jackson play 30 minutes apiece.
Prediction: Ohio State – 74, Indiana – 69