After defending home court against Northwestern earlier this week, Ohio State is back on the road for what should be a winnable match-up with Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are still winless in Big Ten play, although they came close to a win against Illinois last week, losing by 9 in triple overtime.
Ohio State is sitting on an 80 RPI rank and a 73 KenPom rank right now. That's not terrible, but Joe Lunardi's latest mock bracket still has the Buckeyes on the outside looking in. Those 5 losses and just 1 win against the RPI top-50 are weighing heavily on this squad right now.
Hope springs eternal, though, and I just can't quit this Buckeye team. Ohio State is sitting smack-dab in the middle of the Big Ten standings right now, 2 games ahead of Nebraska and just 1 game behind fourth place Purdue and Michigan. Michigan is currently sitting at a 9-seed in the latest mock bracket -- to have any chance at making the tournament, Ohio State needs another quality top-5 win and some Michigan losses. The Buckeyes have a chance to flip-flop with Michigan when they play next week, but must take care of business against Rutgers first.
Ohio State's first matchup with Rutgers this year was a 26-point win that saw all Buckeye starters in double figures for scoring. Curiously, the Buckeyes did allow guard Corey Sanders to score 20 points, including 4 from beyond the arc. The rest of the Scarlet Knights couldn't contribute enough though -- although four players reached double digits, Rutgers shot just 38% from the field.
The home stretch of the season is brutal for Ohio State -- the last three games alone look to be against top-10 opponents (Michigan State twice and Iowa at home). If Ohio State is about to hit a classic Matta-style February explosion, a strong win against Rutgers could be the spark that lights the fuse.
Numbers to Know
Although it may not seem like it, only one Buckeye is shooting under 50% from the free throw line now for the season. When I previewed last month's Rutgers game, Buckeyes motorman Jae'Sean Tate was shooting only 47%. 50% is a pretty low threshold, but at least there's only one Buckeye sitting below it right now. The Buckeyes are still terrible at foul shots, but the team rate is getting closer to the respectable range.
Rutgers spent the first part of the season losing big. 25 and 30 point blowouts were the norm through much of November and December. Rutgers hasn't tightened up recently, only losing the last five games by an average of 18 points. That number is pulled down by a couple "narrow" 9 point losses, counterbalancing the 34-point drubbing Rutgers took in East Lansing and the 24-point win Nebraska gathered when it was in New Jersey earlier this week. The margin of loss may be getting smaller, but it's still in double digits, and Ohio State is heavily favored in this game
Zero wins in 2016 for the Scarlet Knights. Will Rutgers finish this season with its last victory coming on December 28, 2015? There's some winnable games coming up on Rutgers's schedule, including two meetings with Minnesota, who also has yet to win a Big Ten game, but a no-win-2016 is entirely on the table here.
Cast of Characters
Lyle has been working himself out of a funk these last few games. He exploded during last week's Wisconsin game, scoring 27 points of the Buckeyes' 68 points and shredding the Badgers in the paint, and posted a team-leading 16 points earlier this week against Northwestern in a more balanced game for the squad. Thad Matta has shown trust in Lyle's performance, leaving him on the court for all but a few minutes of the last two games.
Lyle torched this Rutgers squad when they played last month, hanging 16 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his first Buckeye triple double. Lyle's challenge will be to modify his game if Rutgers decides to double him in an effort to stymie Lyle's late-season surge. If Lyle can score or distribute, the Buckeyes should have a win in hand.
The freshman "point-forward," and four-star prospect was stuck in NCAA purgatory for a lot of this season, but has slowly been working his way into the Buckeye rotation. Game minutes are still erratic for Mitchell, but he's shown that he can be a strong rebounder, and his effort is above reproach. Thad Matta said last week that Mitchell's energy and tenacity for the ball form a "foundation of the future of your program." In a game where reserves could end up playing a lot of minutes, Mitchell could have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution in this game.
Sanders is Rutgers's leading scorer, and he had a great game against Ohio State earlier this season. Just a freshman, Sanders has scored in double digits his last five games, including 28 against Nebraska and 39 against Illinois in the last two outings. Sanders is most effective from inside the arc; he shoots just 32% from 3-range. Interestingly, there may be some internal strife with Sanders. Coach Eddie Jordan said last month that Sanders has had some "bumps in the road to maturation" and needs a serving of "humble pie." Seems like bulletin board material for me - Ohio State needs to bring Sanders back to earth.
The rebounding battle in this game is going to involve D.J. Foreman, Rutgers's leading rebounder. The 6-8, 240 lb forward managed 9 rebounds against Ohio State last month, well above his season average, which has been steadily increasing all season. Foreman appears to rise to strong competition -- he's had strong rebounding games against Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue, all ranked when Rutgers played them. Foreman is also a scoring threat, and is particularly skilled at free throws. His presence on the glass and ability to convert fouls could cause issues.
How to watch
Game time: 4 pm ET
Radio: 97.1 The Fan
Streaming Online: BTN2Go