After a tough, 70-57 road loss against Wisconsin on Sunday, the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team heads back to Columbus to face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for the first and only time this season. The Buckeyes had been winners of three-straight before their loss over the weekend, but the road game in Madison proved once again to be too much for Chris Holtmann’s team.
While Ohio State still looks like an NCAA Tournament-bound squad with an overall record of 15-8 and NET ranking of No. 22, the team’s on-court performance in Big Ten play leaves much to be desired. In fact, the Buckeyes’ 5-7 record is good for just 10th in the conference, and the memory of marquee wins in the non-conference season have continued to buoy Ohio State’s resume even months later.
It has been apparent from the early goings this season that the Big Ten is one of the best conferences in the country and that the teams in the conference would likely beat each other down to lower seeds come tournament selection time. But, in order to secure their ticket to March Madness, the Buckeyes do have to win a few more ball games. They’ll have a tougher-than-usual opportunity to do so tonight when Rutgers comes to town tonight at 7 p.m. EST at Value City Arena.
Things had seemed to be on the up-and-up for Ohio State, which is why Sunday’s loss was such a tough one for the Buckeyes. Having won three straight games, including two on the road (the latest a hard-fought victory over rival Michigan), the Buckeyes looked back on track to get hot for their end of season run.
Sunday, however, the Badgers ran away late in the first half and never looked back on their way to their 13-point win, having led by as many as 24. Wisconsin held junior forward Kaleb Wesson, who had been averaging more than 14 points per game, to eight points on 2-for-11 shooting over 27 minutes. Ohio State committed nine turnovers in the first half alone, which contributed to the Badgers’ ability to control the game early — along, naturally, with the Bucks shooting 32 percent from the field in the first.
Senior forward Andre Wesson led the anemic Ohio State offense with 11 points on the day. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Wesson was the only player for OSU to score in double figures. Sophomore guard Luther Muhammad and junior guard CJ Walker each added nine. In all, Ohio State shot just 36.7 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three-point range.
Defensively, the Buckeyes allowed the Badgers to shoot 41.4 percent, and it certainly stung that Ohio State transfer Micah Potter scored nine points in his second victory over his former team.
On the bright side, Ohio State was 15-of-16 from the free throw line, a vast improvement over their 73 percent average on the season. However, the Buckeyes balanced it out with 14 turnovers to the Badgers’ nine.
The Buckeyes were once again without freshman point guard D.J. Carton, who remains on a leave of absence from the team as he works on his mental health, with no timetable for his return. Carton had been averaging 10.4 points per game on nearly 48 percent shooting before his departure.
Now, Ohio State looks to bounce back, find its offense and reboot its defense as it prepares to face Rutgers tonight.
Rutgers is sitting at 17-7 on the year (including 16-0 at home, though that statistic is not relevant for tonight’s matchup). The Scarlet Knights are also 8-5 in conference, which is good for fourth in the Big Ten. Perhaps even more impressive for Rutgers, however, is that, with its most recent win against Northwestern and just seven regular season games remaining, the team has achieved a winning season for the first time since 2006. In a year of ending droughts, the Scarlet Knights are also hoping to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1991 — a hope that seems to be quite achievable if Rutgers keeps its current trajectory.
In that aforementioned match against the Wildcats, Rutgers rallied from an 18-point deficit, ultimately securing a 77-73 victory in overtime. Junior guard Geo Baker, coming off the bench, led all scorers with 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting. In all, 16 of Baker’s points came in the second half, and the junior also hit the critical three-point shot with 1:15 remaining in regulation to tie things up and get to overtime.
Rutgers shot 45.6 percent from the field, though the team collectively made just 4-of-20 attempts from behind the arc. The Scarlet Knights outrebounded Northwestern 49-30, but had 11 turnovers to the Wildcats’ four.
The Scarlet Knights have a stingy scoring defense, giving up just 61.4 points per game. In the Big Ten, they’re second only to Purdue in that category. Rutgers is also allowing a mere 38% shooting from the field (the team did allow 42.4% shooting against Northwestern).
On the flip side, Rutgers has the worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big Ten at 1/1, though individually, Baker comes in at 2.2/1. Sunday, Baker had five assists and zero turnovers.
On the sidelines, the Scarlet Knights are led by Steve Pikiell, who is in his fourth season at the helm in Piscataway. After finishing dead last in the Big Ten standings in his first two seasons, and 10th last year, Pikiell has been having a wildly successful season by Rutgers’ standards throughout the 2019-20 campaign. In fact, the Scarlet Knights have not won more than seven conference games in a season under Pikiell’s regime, but with six under their belt already, this season looks to be a much-improved one for Rutgers.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 78.7%
The pieces seem to be in place for Ohio State to have a late-season run, despite being without its freshman point guard. The Buckeyes have just eight remaining games and, despite their struggles early, have gone 3-1 in their last four contests. While that mark is neither stupendous nor sustained, it’s a lot better than the 2-5 tally the team had in the month of January.
One of the truths of Big Ten play this season has been the edge of home court advantage. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they get the Scarlet Knights in Columbus. Even more fortuitous for Chris Holtmann’s team, three of the next four games, including tonight’s matchup, are scheduled to be played at Value City Arena. It’s a huge opportunity to get to .500 (or closer to it) in Big Ten play.