If Ohio State wants to go dancing in next week’s NCAA Tournament, they’ll need to win five games in five days at the Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C. The Buckeyes are hoping the improbable run starts tonight, when they take on Rutgers at the Verizon Center. Ohio State enters the Big Ten Tournament as the 11-seed, which is their lowest seeding in the Big Ten Tournament since 1998, when the Buckeyes entered the inaugural Big Ten Tournament with the same seed.
Since the Big Ten Tournament started in 1998, Ohio State has posted a 26-12 record, winning the tournament title on four different occasions. A lot of Ohio State’s success in the Big Ten Tournament has came with Thad Matta as their head coach. This year marks Matta’s 13th year as head coach at Ohio State, and during that span the Buckeyes have played in 31 Big Tournament games, winning 23 of them. Both of those totals are in the most in the Big Ten during that span.
Ohio State enters tonight’s game trying to regroup from Saturday’s 96-92 senior day loss to Indiana in Columbus. The loss was just the third loss on senior day for the Buckeyes during Matta’s tenure. Most of the time when Ohio State cracks the 90-point barrier in a conference game they end up with a victory. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, as the Buckeyes lost for just the ninth time in 124 when scoring at least 90 points in a Big Ten game.
While Ohio State wasn’t able to defeat the Hoosiers, it wasn’t because of the play of a couple of Buckeyes who have been consistent for pretty much the whole year. Jae’Sean Tate was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten by the coaches and the media, while Trevor Thompson got the same acknowledgment from the media. Against Indiana, Tate scored a team-high 20 points and added six rebounds, and six assists. Thompson recorded his 11th double-double of the year by scoring 19 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.
Tonight’s game marks the sixth meeting ever between Ohio State and Rutgers, with the Buckeyes holding a 4-1 edge in the series. Rutgers won the first-ever meeting between the two schools back in 1978, but Ohio State has won all four meetings since Rutgers joined the Big Ten, including a 70-64 victory over the Scarlet Knights last month in Columbus. With the score tied at 62 with just over a minute to play, Kam Williams completed a four-point play to give Ohio State the lead for good in the contest. Williams finished the game with 23 points, while Trevor Thompson added 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Even though Rutgers finished at the bottom of the Big Ten this year, the Scarlet Knights have shown significant signs of improvement under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell. After winning just seven games last year, Rutgers has doubled their win total this year. The Scarlet Knights have played teams a lot tougher this year as well. Even though the conference wins are still lacking, 10 of Rutgers’ last 15 games have been decided by six points or less. By comparison, last year 15 of the 17 Big Ten losses by the Scarlet Knights were by double digits.
After coming into their regular season finale riding a six-game losing streak, the Scarlet Knights are coming into the Big Ten Tournament on a bit of a high-note after beating Illinois 62-59 on Saturday in Piscataway. After trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, Rutgers was able to battle back and down the Fighting Illini on a game-winning three-pointer by Deshawn Freeman with seven seconds to go. Freeman finished the game with a team-high 21 points, while Corey Sanders added 17 points.
Rutgers will be playing in their third Big Ten Tournament since joining the conference, and the Scarlet Knights are still looking for their first win. All three seasons have seen the Scarlet Knights finish with the worst record in the Big Ten, but after winning two Big Ten games in 2014-15 and just one Big Ten game in 2015-16, this year’s three conference wins were the most they have recorded since joining the conference. In 2015, Rutgers lost 80-68 to Minnesota, and last year the Scarlet Knights lost 89-72 to Nebraska.
Numbers to know
Tonight’s game marks the 23rd time in the Big Ten Tournament where Ohio State has gone into their game as the higher seed. In those games, the Buckeyes have amassed a 20-2 record. The last time Ohio State lost as the higher seed was in 2006 when they were the top seed and fell to the second seeded Iowa Hawkeyes in the final. If Ohio State advances they’ll be the lower seed on Thursday night against Northwestern. In 16 games as the lower seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes have just a 6-10 record.
This year marks the 13th year that Thad Matta has been Ohio State’s head coach. In Ohio State’s previous 12 opening Big Ten Tournament games, the Buckeyes have posted a 11-1 record. Earning those victories hasn’t always been easy though, as seven of those wins have come by six points or less. The last time Ohio State’s first game of the Big Ten Tournament was decided by more than six points came back in 2013 when the Buckeyes defeated Nebraska 71-50.
A major reason for the improvement by Rutgers this year has been because of the work the Scarlet Knights have done on the boards. Not only is Rutgers averaging 14.6 offensive rebounds per game, which is third in the country, but the Scarlet Knights are 10th in total rebounds this year, averaging 40.4 rebounds per game. Rutgers leads the Big Ten in both categories. After outrebounding their conference foes in just three games this year, the Scarlet Knights have outrebounded their opponents in 11 of 18 conference games so far this year.
Cast of characters
The sophomore guard has played his best basketball in a Ohio State uniform over his last few games. Jackson poured in a season-high 18 points in the win over Wisconsin nearly two weeks ago, and matched that on Saturday in the loss against Indiana. The Eastern Florida State CC transfer did most of his damage from outside in those two games, hitting nine three-pointers. Prior to his breakout performance against Wisconsin, Jackson had only recorded double figures in the scoring column in one other game, when he scored 13 points in the February 11th loss to Maryland.
After losing his spot in the starting lineup after the Maryland game in mid-February, Lyle has started to settle into his role coming off the bench for the Buckeyes. In four of the last five games, Lyle has reached double figures in scoring, including scoring at least 17 points in each of the last three games. Lyle has found his shooting stroke as well, hitting seven of his 10 shots in each of the last two games, and hitting all five of his three-point attempts spanning the last three games.
The result of last month’s matchup between the Buckeyes and Scarlet Knights might have been a little different had Sanders not fouled out with just under five minutes to go in the game. Before fouling out, Sanders had scored 17 points against the Buckeyes. Earlier this week, Sanders was named to the Honorable Mention All-Big Ten Team by both the coaches and the media. The sophomore guard is leading the Scarlet Knights in scoring this year, averaging 13.0 points per game.
Freeman was the hero in Saturday’s win over Illinois, scoring a team-high 21 points, and burying the game-winning three-pointer with seven seconds to go. In the first meeting between the schools, Freeman was able to record a double-double, scoring 10 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. The 7.9 rebounds per game Freeman is averaging this year leads Rutgers this year.
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
TV: Big Ten Network