Bloomington – Tom Crean clearly thinks his team has its work cut out for it Wednesday night in Columbus.
That's when the Hoosiers (7-6/1-0) take on an Ohio State (10-4/0-2) team that was ranked in the nation's top 25 all the way up to this week. Back-to-back setbacks to Wisconsin and Michigan in the opening week of conference play dropped Coach Thad Matta's team from the rankings, and made the Buckeyes 3-3 since Evan Turner broke two bones in his lower back in early December.
The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Turner had been averaging better than 20 points and 12 rebounds per game before the injury. But his presence or absence doesn't make or break the Buckeyes in Crean's mind.
"Our opinion of their program and their team is that without (Turner) they have an excellent team," Crean says, "and with him they're a national title contender."
If that is in fact the case, then Indiana will play its first road game of the season against a national championship caliber club. Turner was originally expected to be sidelined for eight weeks following the Dec. 5 injury, but there is now a strong possibility he could play against Indiana.
Matta has been vague about the 6'7" junior's availability, but the Columbus Dispatch reported today that he would be available barring any setbacks at practice today. Turner had x-rays done on his back yesterday, and was expected to return to the practice court this afternoon.
Turner's potential return doesn't come as a huge shock to Crean, who has said for the last several days that his team would practice with the assumption that Turner would be on the floor. Turner had a couple of big games against Indiana a year ago, including a 29-point, 10-rebound, three-assist performance in the Buckeyes' 93-81 win in Bloomington.
"Our players are well aware of how good he is, and it only makes good sense to prepare for him," Crean said. "Then, things start to come out today that make you think you did the right thing."
Freshman Christian Watford, who will be playing his true collegiate road game Wednesday night, said Ohio State hasn't necessarily changed much of what it does since Turner's injury. Instead, Watford said the Buckeyes have inserted senior David Lighty into Turner's role. The 6'5" junior has responded by averaging 17.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists during Turner's six-game absence.
Like Crean, Watford is impressed with the Buckeyes with or without their preseason All-American.
"With him, they have a chance of winning a national championship," Watford said. "Without him, I don't think they do, but they're still a great team. They can go deep in the tournament with or without him."
While Turner led the Buckeyes in scoring in four of the seven games that he completed, his value comes in ways other than points. Turner had double-figure rebounds in six of OSU's first seven games, and Crean said he also increases the energy level on their full court press.
Tom Pritchard is familiar with Turner's abilities from last season's games, and understands the emotional lift that his return could provide for an Ohio State team that desperately needs a win to avoid an 0-3 start to league play.
"Any time a team gets one of their best players back they're going to be on a high and ready to play," said Pritchard, who averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds against Ohio State a year ago. "I think it's something we have to counter with pressure defense and the offense pushing the ball and doing what we want to do."
Turner's Availability Doesn't Surprise IU
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