Ohio State’s 70-66 win over Michigan Saturday was a spark that has potential to light a flame for what is left of their conference schedule. It was a surprise. It was unexpected. But it was a win--the Buckeyes’ first in Ann Arbor since 2011.
It was one of the strongest defensive performances for the Buckeyes against one of the most potent offensive teams in the Big Ten, holding Michigan, which averages nearly 47 percent shooting from the field, to 37.3 percent. Michigan also got into significant foul trouble, sending the Buckeyes to the free throw line for 28 attempts (more on that effort below). Thad Matta used a variety of looks in the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan, relying on an eight-man rotation and getting significant minutes off the bench. But perhaps what is most impressive is that Ohio State overcame an 11-point first half deficit against a strong opponent while facing a formidable home crowd for Michigan.
“We played through adversity,” said senior forward Marc Loving. “They came out with a fantastic punch in the first couple minutes, but we were able to recover. It’s not going to be perfect, but I’m happy we competed for the full 40-minutes.”
That engagement is something that Ohio State will need to focus on as they head back to Columbus to take on Rutgers--a team which took 15th-ranked Wisconsin to overtime less than two weeks ago. The Scarlet Knights are also coming off their first-ever Big Ten road win against Penn State after going 0-23 in away matchups in their first two seasons in the conference. After opening Big Ten play 0-6, the Scarlet Knights have won just two conference matchups and are dead last in Big Ten standings.
Rutgers is carried by their defense under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell, who brought down points allowed per game from 81 in the 2015-16 season to just 66.3 this year. While they still have a lot of growing to do before being truly competitive in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights still have hopes of an NIT Tournament bid left to play for this season.
After a close, emotional road win, Ohio State will need to refocus its efforts and continue to play improved basketball as the team returns home against Rutgers.
Numbers to know
The Scarlet Knights average more than 15 offensive rebounds per game, which is good for third in the NCAA. Last season, Rutgers finished 249th in the same category. Ohio State, meanwhile, has averaged just 10.67 offensive boards per game on the season. However, things are looking up for Matta’s squad. Though Matta said “We were shooting so poorly, there were a lot of opportunities,” Ohio State dominated the rebound battle against Michigan by a decisive 42-24 margin. The Buckeyes had nine more each offensive and defensive rebounds Saturday versus the Wolverines, led by center Trevor Thompson who pulled down 11 on his own.
Overall, Ohio State managed to improve in many of the areas that have been plaguing them for the duration of the season Saturday, including shooting free throws. Ohio State was nearly 86 percent from the line, hitting 24-of-28 attempts against Michigan, despite averaging under 68 percent on the season. Still, Rutgers holds an even worse mark from the charity stripe, averaging just 62.5 percent from the line. Ohio State has found itself in many close games this season and, Saturday, improved free throw shooting proved to be the difference maker. The Buckeyes will need to continue this trend not only against Rutgers but down the stretch for the rest of conference play.
The Scarlet Knights’ assist-to-turnover ratio is the worst in the Big Ten, as they average just 11.6 assists per game (13th in the conference) and 14.3 turnovers per game (second-highest in the conference). While Ohio State doesn’t exactly maintain possession effectively, averaging 13 turnovers per game and recording 16 against Michigan Saturday, the Buckeyes are sitting at a 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio, led by JaQuan Lyle’s 5.1 assists per game. Lyle himself boasts a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio--the best on the team and 10th-best in the conference. Ohio State will need to clean up its own turnovers and continue to rely on Lyle and fellow point guard C.J. Jackson to dish the ball effectively.
Cast of characters
Earning his first career start in place of the injured JaQuan Lyle Saturday, the 6-foot-1 point guard scored eight points in 28 minutes versus Michigan. He also provided an engaged presence on defense and on the offensive boards, pulling down eight total rebounds. While Jackson has often been pulled in when Lyle has been struggling, a healthy Jackson and Lyle (who played 23 minutes Saturday) together on the court offer a good lineup for Ohio State to go small when the situation deems it. Especially without that go-to scorer on the roster for the Buckeyes, Jackson’s contributions on the court cannot be discounted.
The senior forward led the Buckeyes with 17 points against the Wolverines. Even with Matta rotating the lineup significantly, Loving still played a team-high 36 minutes in their win. He went 3-for-7 from three point range, and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line. And though he only went 4-for-12 from the field, he hit a crucial jumper in the final two minutes to put the Buckeyes up by two. On the season, Loving is averaging 11.9 points per game, second on the team behind Jae’Sean Tate. He has also stepped up his intensity in recent weeks--something that the Buckeyes will need him to keep up down the stretch.
The 6-foot-2 guard opted to return to Rutgers for his sophomore season after briefly considering leaving Piscataway for the NBA at the end of last season. Saturday, he played 39 minutes against Penn State, leading the Scarlet Knights with 25 points on the night. He was also the hero of Rutgers’ first conference win of the year over Nebraska, hitting a last second shot to give the Scarlet Knights the victory. He leads Rutgers in scoring and assists on the season, averaging 13 points and 3.4 assists per game for a team which scores just 67 points per game.
The power forward has dropped some weight since last season, in which he missed the final 25 games with a knee injury, coming in at 6-foot-7, 225-pounds this year. The junior has been a big part of Rutgers’ success on the boards: he is second in the Big Ten in offensive rebounds, averaging 3.3 per game (he is also sixth in the conference in defensive rebounds, with 5.2 per game). He is hitting nearly 50 percent of his attempts from the field on his way to averaging 11.5 points per game.
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM