For the first time all season, Buckeye fans got to see their team at full strength (well, sort of) as No. 23 Ohio State (6-1, 0-1) fought back to earn a 77-70 victory over UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday afternoon. E.J. Liddell returned after missing two games with mononucleosis and Seth Towns made his Ohio State debut, albeit only for two minutes and some change.
While Duane Washington Jr. did lead Ohio State with 14 points on a less than efficient 4-of-12 shooting night, the Buckeyes were carried to victory behind the late efforts of their freshmen, Zed Key and Eugene Brown.
Key, who registered his first career double-double against Cleveland State on Dec. 13 and averages just under seven points per game, chipped in 11 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes. Three of those rebounds were of the offensive variety, and nine of his 11 points came in the second half, while Ohio State mounted their comeback.
But the big x-factor that clinched the win for Ohio State was Brown. The 6-foot-6 freshman from Conyers, Georgia came into the game averaging just 1.8 points per game before promptly canning all three of his three-point attempts, including back-to-back triples to help the Buckeyes hold onto their slim lead in the closing minutes. He finished with nine points in eight minutes off the bench.
Chris Holtmann is going to need both his freshmen to show up Wednesday afternoon if he wants an opportunity to upset Rutgers (6-0, 2-0) at home. In fact, this will be the first time the two teams have met since Rutgers joined the Big Ten where the Scarlet Knights are the higher-ranked team. Steve Pikiell’s squad soared all the way to No. 13 in the AP Poll this week after beating Maryland and No. 18 Illinois last week. This is the highest Rutgers has been ranked since 1976.
On top of needing both Key and Brown to contribute off the bench, the Buckeyes are going to need other key contributors to step up as well. Washington Jr is averaging 14.4 points per game, but is doing that while shooting 36% from the floor and 34.7% from 3-point range. Yuck.
During his media availability on Tuesday afternoon, Holtmann specifically mentioned Washington as someone who needs to step up, and for him that means keeping up his same level of production on less shot attempts.
Holtmann said Duane Washington Jr. has to improve his efficiency. He is shooting 36% from the field this season.— Lantern Sports (@LanternSports) December 22, 2020
It may be unreasonable to ask Liddell or Towns to contribute more than what they did against UCLA considering their circumstances, but increased production from Ohio State’s still-recovering stars would go a long way in knocking off the Scarlet Knights and earning their first conference win of the season.
Liddell chipped in nine points against the Bruins, but three of those came in the first minute of the game. Towns took just one shot attempt in his two minutes, and it is still completely up in the air what type of workload he’ll have moving forward. At full strength/health, Ohio State is probably the superior team. But as it stands today, they are at neither full strength nor health. Advantage: Rutgers.
Head Coach Steve Pikiell keeps his rotation short and tight, as only seven players have seen consistent minutes for Rutgers this year. One of those seven, 6-foot-11 center Cliff Omoruyi, will miss Wednesday’s game with a knee sprain.
Aside from Omoruyi, Rutgers has three players averaging 14+ points and 30+ minutes per game. Ron Harper Jr. (24 PPG, 7.3 REB, 52.5% 3PT) has emerged as not only a B1G Player of the Year candidate, but an All-American candidate as well. The 6-foot-6 junior guard is shooting 60% from the floor this season and has scored at least 15 points in every game this year.
Jacob Young (16.5 PPG, 5.7 REB, 42.5% 3PT) has nearly doubled his scoring average from last year and is coming off a 24-point showing against Illinois last week. Young has blossomed into a fantastic player on both ends of the floor since transferring from Texas two seasons ago.
And to round out the talented guard trio, 6-foot-4 junior Montez Mathis (14.0 PPG, 3.8 REB, 2 AST) has nearly doubled his scoring output from last season as well, as he scored just over seven points per game as a sophomore. Mathis is somewhat comparable to Ohio State’s Musa Jallow, as he struggles shooting the basketball at times but uses remarkable athleticism and creativity to get to the basket. Mathis has been horrid from beyond the arc this season (25%) and from the free throw line (48%).
Rutgers ranks ahead of Ohio State in almost all offensive statistics. They’re more efficient shooting the basketball from both inside and outside the 3-point line. They record more rebounds, assists, and blocks than the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s leading scorer would only be the third-leading scorer for Rutgers if he was to flip teams. On the defensive end, Rutgers allows three more points per game than Ohio State, but have them beat in blocks, steals, and total rebounds.
The one area where Ohio State has a clear advantage is free-throw shooting. Rutgers has been (and this is putting it nicely) horrendous at the charity stripe this season, knocking down just 60.4% of their attempts from the line. Only two members of Rutgers’ seven-man rotation (Young and Paul Mulcahy) are shooting better than 70% from the free throw line this season. I mean, it’s really bad. So bad in fact, Steve Pikiell has been getting emails the past three seasons from the Rutgers faithful to show their ~ disapproval ~ to Rutgers free throw shooting:
On a conference call with Rutgers HC Steve Pikiell he stated he still gets emails about the team's struggles from the FT line but said that was ok and that he likes the fact people are emailing him. Said there is a buzz from fans, that they like the team and are involved. #RHoops— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) February 15, 2019
If Ohio State can control the game long enough to end up in a position where free throws decide this one, it’s a wrap. Obviously, the challenge will be getting to that point.
This is the best Rutgers team in almost 50 years, and although making fun of Rutgers has become a hobby for Ohio State fans, this Rutgers team is no joke. They have three bona fide scoring threats, and that doesn’t include Geo Baker, who is only averaging seven points per game this year but was a double-digit scorer each of the last three seasons.
With Omoruyi out, Rutgers’ depth will be tested. The Buckeyes should attack the paint early and often, as they measure-up pretty well with the Scarlet Knights down low. Ohio State won’t win this game with Washington Jr. shooting sub-40% again, nor can they get less than 20 minutes from Liddell, assuming improved health.
Rutgers is the No. 13 team in the country (18 according to Ken Pomeroy), and claiming a victory here would keep Ohio State on pace with the big dogs of the conference and avoid an 0-2 start to conference play.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 64.8%
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