As Ohio State battled Indiana on the road Tuesday night, the Buckeyes found themselves facing a nine-point halftime deficit in a hostile environment. Trying to mount a potentially season-saving comeback, OSU began calling Kosta Koufos' number and he responded in a big way.
With 10:57 remaining, Indiana's lead had been trimmed to one point at 42-41. Of the 20 second-half points OSU had scored to that point, Koufos was personally responsible for 15 of them. Two more of the points during that stretch came from a post player when senior forward Othello Hunter threw down a dunk after setting a solid screen for classmate Jamar Butler.
It was arguably the most the Buckeyes had looked to get the ball into the paint for an extended period of time all season, and it worked.
Now, as OSU prepares for Minnesota (4 p.m, ESPN) and after that its final two regular-season games of the season, that inside presence could become a more emphasized part of the offense.
"I think we shouldn't rely on the three-pointer all the time because in certain games it doesn't go in," Hunter said. "We should just take it inside and go from there, really."
As a team, 37.5 percent of the Buckeyes shots have come from beyond the arc. In most cases, the team has lived and died by the trey – and mostly died. But after going 1 for 12 from deep in the first half against Indiana on Feb. 26, the Buckeyes started looking inside more in the second half.
With Koufos scoring 18 of his team-high 21 points in the final 20 minutes, the Buckeyes also went 6 of 13 (46.2 percent) from deep.
"It helps me a lot when we get going inside," Butler said. "That's what basketball's all about: inside-outside. If you can get both of us going, I think we can play with anybody."
The message is obvious: getting the ball inside can have a positive influence on the offense. Of course, it helps when a highly touted player such as Koufos finally starts to hit his stride.
After being held to just four points in a road loss to Michigan State on Jan. 15, the 7-0 freshman has scored 10 or more points in 11 consecutive games. He has posted double-doubles in three of those games.
"The main thing with him is he has to take his time when he gets it in the post," Butler said. "Sometimes he rushes it and tries to go too fast. That's what Greg (Oden) was good at – he looked around and read the defense. Kosta's just now starting to get the hang of that, and his play speaks for itself."
Although he lines up as the team's center, Koufos is the type of player who has been most confident playing a more skilled game away from the basket. Able to connect on jumpers as well as score in the paint, he has struggled at times to adjust to the physical play of the Big Ten.
That makes the fact that he put up 21 points against the Hoosiers and senior center D.J. White – a leading candidate for the Big Ten Player of the Year honors – even more impressie. His first basket of the second half came when he threw down a dunk as he was being fouled by White.
He converted the three-point play and earned some applause from his partner in the frontcourt.
"I was like, ‘That's what I'm talking about. Finally, you found it,' " Hunter said.
Entering the Minnesota game, Koufos' average of 13.9 points per game puts him second on the team. He credited head coach Thad Matta as one of the reasons he has grown more comfortable with the ball in his hands.
"Before I would get a little anxious when I would get the ball," he said. "Coach Matta talked to me several times and told me to relax, take a deep breath and enjoy myself out there. I don't have to score 30 points a game for us to win basketball games."
Scoring 30 points a game certainly wouldn't hurt, however. If Hunter has his way, the Buckeyes will keep looking to the post when they need points from here on out. Although he has not been as productive or as consistent as Koufos has been down the stretch, Hunter is adding 9.5 points per game – third-best on the team.
The problem is that Matta's teams have never seen a three-pointer they did not like – sometimes to the chagrin of the post players.
"You get frustrated because you want the ball down low," he said. "You're like, ‘Man, why aren't they looking for us?' It's just a part of the game. It's not always going to work out the way you want it to."
If Hunter and Koufos can combine for 33 points and go 14 of 27 from the field like they did against the Hoosiers, however, it might start working out the way Hunter wants. And if that is enough to get the Buckeyes over the hump and pointed back toward the NCAA tournament, his teammates will be forced to agree with him.