It’s hard to believe, but the Ohio State men's basketball team is already about a third of the way through its Big Ten schedule. It has been a bumpy start in the B1G for the Buckeyes, starting out the conference slate with a 2-3 record after navigating their non-conference opponents unscathed to sit at 8-3 on the year overall. Chris Holtmann’s squad has been a mixed bag so far, struggling to shoot the ball from range but playing really well in the paint on most nights.
The team has had some extra time off following their loss to Minnesota on Jan. 3, as their last scheduled game against Penn State this past Wednesday was postponed for COVID issues with the Nittany Lions. As it has been at times this season, the Buckeyes’ lack of size came into play against the Golden Gophers, allowing 7-footer Liam Robbins to go off for 27 points and 14 rebounds in a 77-60 loss for OSU. Ohio State’s 3-point shooting was dreadful in Minneapolis, hitting just 7-of-27 (25.9%) as a unit.
Despite the extra time off, Ohio State has not actually gotten to rest up and get healthy ahead of their rematch with the Scarlet Knights. In fact, the Buckeyes are even more beat up than the last time we saw them. Starting point guard CJ Walker will miss an undetermined amount of time due to torn ligaments in his right hand — an injury he has struggled through all season after hurting it in a team scrimmage back in November. In addition to Walker, center Ibrahima Diallo is out for a while with an MCL sprain.
Holtmann will need other guys to step up in their absence as Ohio State looks to even up their conference record Saturday at noon against Rutgers.
The last time these two teams met, it was an 80-68 win for the good guys in Columbus. After Rutgers led by as many as 16 points in the second period, Ohio State utilized a 20-1 run late in the half to take control and would go on to win by 12. The Scarlet Knights completely fell apart down the stretch, as the team missed 11 of its last 12 shots from the floor. Overall, the Buckeyes outscored Steve Pikiell’s group 52-30 over the final 20 minutes.
Ohio State was led that night by Duane Washington Jr., who dropped 22 points to go along with six rebounds and three assists. The guard did not shoot particularly well from range, but he made some big baskets when it mattered the most, knocking down three of his four 3-pointers in succession to help spark the Buckeyes’ second-half run. E.J. Liddell balled out as well, dropping 21 points with six boards and a pair of blocks as he really bullied Rutgers in the paint.
A big reason for Ohio State’s success in that game was their physicality, leading to a bunch of fouls called against the Knights. Already without center Cliff Omoruyi, the Buckeyes managed to foul out his replacement Myles Johnson with eight minutes left in the game. Leveling out the playing field in the size department, Ohio State was able to dominate inside the rest of the way, killing Rutgers on the boards 45-25 and eating from in close with a 38-20 edge in points in the paint. They also outscored the Knights 22-10 at the charity stripe.
Despite their second-half struggles, Rutgers got really good efforts from their guards in that game. Ron Harper Jr. led the team with 20 points in addition to his six rebounds, while Montez Mathis scored 16 points with four boards and a block. The junior backcourt duo knocked down six of the team’s 10 total 3-pointers in the contest. Jacob Young also played really well for the Scarlet Knights, putting up 12 points with a team-high five assists, but left the game with a little over seven minutes remaining after going to the ground hard on a foul.
Life will be harder for Ohio State this time around, as they will be without their starting point guard in Walker. Averaging 8.7 points and a team-high 4.2 assists per game, the Buckeyes will likely look to Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos in his absence. Sotos has done very little thus far in Columbus, scoring just 1.3 points per game and playing less than eight minutes per contest. A senior guard, Sotos does have experience running an offense, as he averaged 11.5 points and 3.9 assists per game with the Bison last season.
There are a few other players who could see extended minutes in Walker’s absence, including Musa Jallow. Not your prototypical ball-handling guard, Jallow has been one of the team’s best players on defense so far this season, and has provided a really great spark off the bench as the junior’s minutes have continued to grow as the year progresses. We could also soon see the debut of mid-year enrollee Meechie Johnson, a freshman who reclassified to the 2020 class and has been working his way up to game speed.
On the Rutgers side of things, it is unclear whether or not Omoruyi is ready to return. There was no timetable given for him when he originally suffered the knee injury back on Dec. 20 against Illinois, but some had thought there was a chance he came back in the Scarlet Knight’s last contest against Michigan State on Tuesday. That did not wind up being the case, and we don't know if he will be back for Saturday’s action. The freshman phenom’s return would be a huge boost for Rutgers, as the already vertically-challenged Buckeyes would have to contend with another long and talented body inside.
You would think Ohio State has to improve its 3-point shooting at some point this season, right? The Buckeyes have been dismal from range all year long, ranking second-to-last in the Big Ten with a 31.2% field goal percentage from downtown. To make matters worse, they have also struggled to defend the three-ball, ranking 12th in the B1G allowing their opponents to shoot over 35% from beyond the arc. Conversely, Rutgers has been very good on both fronts, ranking fourth in the conference in 3-point shooting (38.4%) and fourth in 3-point defense.
The Scarlet Knights have been really good this season at holding onto the ball, ranking fourth in the Big Ten with a +2.5 turnover margin and a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. They actually lead the conference in steals with a whopping 8.3 per game, and they’re No. 2 in blocked shots with 5.3 per contest. Ohio State's also been good at taking care of the rock, ranking fifth in the B1G with a 2.45 turnover margin. They have not quite been getting the takeaways like Rutgers has, however, coming in at 13th in the Big Ten with 4.45 steals per game.
These factors all came into play last time these two teams met, but Ohio State was able to overcome them thanks to their interior presence from guys like Liddell and Kyle Young against a shorthanded Scarlet Knights frontcourt. It likely won't be as easy to replicate that kind of dominant effort in the paint — especially if Omoruyi is in fact back in action for this game.
For Ohio State, they will have to find ways to distribute the ball effectively without their starting point guard, and they will have to actually start to knock down some of their 3-point shots if they are going to take them with any sort of volume. Washington has shot much better his last few games, knocking down eight of his last 14 attempts from deep, while Justin Ahrens has been the team’s best 3-point shooter, hitting at a ridiculous 51.3% clip. They will also have the added bonus of a much more comfortable Seth Towns, who has shot over 47% from the field since his return.
Rutgers will have to be able to do the things that allowed them to build their first half lead in the last matchup against the Buckeyes. They have to take advantage of their size, with forward Myles Johnson taller than any active player on the OSU roster at 6-foot-11. The Scarlet Knights have to match Ohio State’s physicality, and they cannot afford to have anywhere near the foul trouble they had the first time. Even without Omoruyi on the floor, keeping the tall trees like Johnson and Mamadou Doucoure on the court will make life much harder for the Buckeyes.
I think it will take a little bit for Ohio State to adjust to the absence of Walker, and while Sotos has shown he is capable of running an offense in the past, he hasn’t done it yet in the rough and rowdy Big Ten. As a result I think the Buckeyes fall behind early, but some improved shooting will avoid opening a chasm as big as the last matchup. I expect to see a nice game from Justice Sueing, who has gone a bit quiet in conference play to this point. It will be a close, grind-it-out kind of game, and the team who makes the least mistakes down the stretch comes away victorious.