Big Ten update: The Buckeyes are rolling

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With two weeks remaining in conference play, the Big Ten has become a three-team race, with No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Iowa and (barely) No. 14 Indiana vying for the regular season conference championship.

Since our Zachary Draves closely chronicles the favored Hawkeyes, we’ll focus on the Buckeyes and Hooisers here. What are their chances of finishing the regular season at the top of Big Ten, winning the conference tournament and advancing far in the NCAA Tournament?

The Buckeyes keep getting better

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch

The Buckeyes’ bench goes wild during a recent win.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

It was a disappointing start to the season for the Buckeyes. Ranked No. 7, Ohio State was upset by then-No. 21 USC, 83-74, on opening night. A little more than a month later, OSU was felled by the other LA squad, with then-No. 2 UCLA beating the Buckeyes, 77-71. Big Ten play also began with a thud for Ohio State, as they suffered a nine-point loss to rival Michigan.

But since those speed bumps, the Buckeyes have been cruising, riding a 12-game winning streak that includes dropping 100 points on then-No. 2 Iowa in an eight-point overtime victory on Jan. 21. This stretch of success has allowed Ohio State to claim that fateful No. 2 ranking, while also rising to the top of the Big Ten.

The win over Iowa looks like a pivot point, when Ohio State, possibly buoyed the belief instilled by the upset, went from a good team to a great team. A big reason for this leap? The star in the win over the Hawkeyes, Cotie McMahon. Until then, it had been an up-and-down season for the sophomore forward. But since her 33-point breakout, McMahon has scored in double figures in six of seven games. Four of those games also have been double-doubles. Critically, McMahon has been more efficient, with multiple game making more than half of her field goal attempts.

As McMahon has found her best form, senior guard Jacy Sheldon and junior guard Taylor Thierry have maintained their reliable, relentless play. Sheldon leads the team in minutes (32.5), points (17.8), assists (3.4) and steals (2.1) per game, doing a little bit of anything and everything. Thierry’s contributions may be quieter, but no less crucial. Although a low-volume 3-point shooter, she’s converting 50 percent of her attempts from the behind the arc, with her triples often proving timely. The same goes for many of the plays she makes.

The combined effort of the McMahon-Sheldon-Thierry trio likely will determine the Buckeyes’ ceiling, including if they will be able to prevent Iowa from exacting revenge on Sunday, Mar. 3, the final day of regular season action. But first, the Buckeyes must take care of Penn State on Thursday (6 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) and Maryland on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network).

If all goes as planned, the Buckeyes will capture the Big Ten regular season championship for the second time in the Kevin McGuff era. In this scenario, Ohio State also would be entering the conference tournament on a 16-game win streak, raising expectations for what the Buckeyes could accomplish in March (and even April).

Can the Hoosiers show a higher ceiling?

Indiana Hoosiers forward Mackenzie Holmes (54) is...

Mackenzie Holmes and Sara Scalia celebrate Holmes becoming the Hoosiers’ all-time leading scorer.
Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Indiana, arguably, had not lost to a team that they shouldn’t have lost to—until Monday.

In an afternoon matchup at Illinois, Indiana stumbled. The Illini, riding a six-player rotation, used a second-quarter spurt to runaway from Hoosiers, 86-66. The 86 points Illinois scored is the second-most Indiana has allowed this season. The Illini brought the extra effort, evidenced by their rebounding advantage, while the Hoosiers lacked the necessary focus, proven by 14 turnovers. And, as previously identified as a potential problem for Indiana, the Hoosiers got only two points from off the bench. Grad big Mackenzie Holmes carried the offensive load for Indiana in her ever-efficient fashion with 24 points. But, she tied her season low with only two rebounds.

In short, it was a bad afternoon for Indiana, one that makes it unlikely that they will repeat as Big Ten regular season champs. They have three conference losses compared to Ohio State’s single loss and Iowa’s two losses.

However, a bigger concern for Indiana than Monday’s mishap is their lack of a signature win. The Hoosiers not only have failed to pull off an unexpected upset, but they also were uncompetitive in their opening weekend loss at Stanford, beaten by 32 points, and in their mid-January loss at Iowa, a 27-point defeat. Against the Buckeyes, the Hoosiers did keep it close, falling by five points in Columbus.

Thursday offers an opportunity for redemption for Indiana, when Iowa comes to Bloomington (8 p.m. ET, Peacock). The Hoosiers will be outfitted for the occasion, debuting their new Fear of God uniforms.

Regardless of the ramifications for the Big Ten regular season championship, an upset win over, or even a closely-contested loss to, the Hawkeyes would inspire confidence in the Hoosiers’ postseason prospects, both in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. A strong performance would show that they are more than a steady, high-floor team, but, instead, are a team with the kind of high ceiling needed to achieve Elite Eight or Final Four dreams.

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