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Indiana Basketball Film Breakdown: Against Ohio State, it all starts with E.J. Liddell

The Indiana men’s basketball team is coming off a disappointing 61-58 defeat at Penn State on Sunday. Its next test: A 9-2 Ohio State team riding a 5-game winning streak. Here is what awaits the Hoosiers on Thursday night.

E.J. LIDDELL AND THE SHOOTERS

When discussing Ohio State’s offense, the conversation has to start with E.J. Liddell. Liddell is on a list of early candidates for the Big 10 Player of the Year, as he is averaging 19.6 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game so far this season. 

The main way the Buckeyes use Liddell is in the post. At 240 pounds, Liddell’s large shoulders and strength make him hard to guard on the block. He often creates enough separation to rise for a fadeaway. 

Indiana has both Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis available to guard Liddell down low. Most teams don’t have two defensive big men of that caliber. Because the Hoosiers have bigs with the potential to guard Liddell one-on-one, it will be interesting to see if IU brings double teams.

Liddell is a poised passer out of double teams. In Ohio State’s 87-79 overtime win over Nebraska on Sunday, Liddell manufactured back-to-back overtime assists to put Ohio State in control. 

Plays like that are Ohio State’s bread and butter. The Buckeyes shoot 39.7 percent on 3-pointers, which is tied for second in the Big Ten. They use their post ups with Liddell and Zed Key and turn them into inside scoring opportunities or 3-point attempts.

Ohio State does an especially good job at pairing a shooting threat on the side of a post player. Watch how the Buckeyes scramble to make sure Jamari Wheeler (43.8 percent on 3s) is on the wing above Zed Key: 

The other part of Liddell’s game that makes him difficult to guard is his role as a screener. Liddell is one of the best screeners in the country and Ohio State takes advantage of that. 

This shows Liddell popping for a jump shot, driving to the basket, rolling to the basket, and flowing into a post up. Liddell’s level of versatility is hard to come by in college basketball. He is shooting 33.3 percent on 3s this season and 50.8 percent in the mid-range area (per basketball statistician Bart Torvik). 

What makes Ohio State’s offense special, in general, is the creativity of the ball screens. Chris Holtmann is a believer in the roll/replace and/or Spain pick and roll actions. These actions lift a player from the dunker spot to the perimeter with the goal of minimizing the weak-side defense and creating three different scoring options. 

Penn State, IU’s previous opponent, also ran a few Spain pick and rolls. This particular one did not fare well for the Hoosiers: 

Defending this play requires recognizing it quickly and effective communication of the defensive coverage. IU’s defense has been solid, but the skill and counters of Ohio State’s offense will be the toughest challenge that IU has faced this season.

Where the Ohio State offense can be slowed down is by forcing turnovers. Ohio State has a turnover rate of 20.4 percent in three conference games thus far. That ranks second-last in the conference, with only Rutgers turning the ball over at a higher rate. If the Hoosiers can play tight defense and play the passing lanes, they could hinder this highly efficient Ohio State offense.

THE “NO-MIDDLE” DEFENSE

Ohio State’s defense is the weaker side of the ball for the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes have a serviceable defense but it is not top-10 in the country like their offense. The main issue for Ohio State’s defense is staying in front of athletic ball handlers. Ohio State is susceptible to giving up a lot of blow-by drives.

It’s clear that Ohio State’s point-of-attack defenders don’t always do a great job containing the drive. The issue for the Hoosiers is that they don’t create that sort of rim pressure outside of Xavier Johnson. Per Bart Torvik, Johnson has 40 “close 2” attempts this season. No other Indiana guard has more than 15.

The main way that Ohio State combats opponents’ drives is by icing screens. By icing a screen, the Buckeyes deny drives down the middle of the court and force ball handlers to drive towards the baseline.

IU has faced two teams — Eastern Michigan and Penn State — that ice screens at a high rate like Ohio State.

Against Eastern Michigan, IU’s guards were patient and made sure the ball got to the weak side effectively. The overload leading to an alley-oop on the second play is one of the better IU plays this season.

The Hoosiers appeared a bit less comfortable against ice coverage at Penn State. Mixed results ensued.

IU probably doesn’t have crafty enough ball handlers to snake around screens in ice coverage, but the least they could do is to reverse the ball with purpose and urgency. Sometimes overcoming ice coverage is as simple as tossing the ball to the screener and turning the play into a dribble handoff instead.

Thursday’s game will be the first time Ohio State has faced a dominant big man this season, so it’s hard to know how the Buckeyes will approach guarding Trayce Jackson-Davis. While Key and Liddell are strong enough for the challenge, they might not have the overall quickness and poise to contain Jackson-Davis. The Buckeyes mainly doubled Jackson-Davis in the matchup last February.

Being doubled should be nothing new for Jackson-Davis, but there is the potential to see him go one-on-one against the Buckeyes. If that’s the case, he must go to work.

FINAL THOUGHTS AND KEYS

To win, Indiana will need to hug the 3-point line defensively. The Hoosiers have a tendency of helping one pass away against great shooters, and that ends up hurting them. Ohio State is too dangerous from beyond the arc. IU cannot make inopportune gambles in this game.

IU will also need to stay in front of Liddell and force him into highly contested shots. This is a challenge that Thompson wasn’t quite ready for last year, but the fifth-year senior is having his best season on both sides of the ball this year. A steady mix of Thompson, Jackson-Davis, and Jordan Geronimo should at least make things difficult for Liddell.

On offense, Indiana has to have quick ball reversals and create looks for its two shooters, Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp. There was no synergy and no clear objective for the Hoosiers offensively against Penn State, and that has to change. The Hoosiers must put their most efficient players in spots where they can succeed.

Jackson-Davis also has to be great, not just good, against these top-tier squads. Jackson-Davis was just 5-for-12 at the rim against Penn State, as he misfired a few shots that he usually makes. This offense just isn’t gifted enough to overcome Jackson-Davis having off nights. He has to play like an All-American.

This is the biggest (and possibly most important) test that Indiana has faced all season. The Hoosiers are now 0-3 on the road after suffering a loss to a Penn State team that they should have beaten. If this team is going to struggle in road environments, they have to get the job done in these monumental home games.

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