There’s a scene in the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” towards the end, where Ricky Bobby (played by Will Ferrell) and Cal Naughton (played by John C. Reilly) work together during a race so that Ricky can pass his newfound nemesis Jean Girard and win the race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Naughton pulls up directly behind Girard, forcing him to box out Naughton and leave open space for Bobby to pass. With his rival boxed out, Ricky Bobby has a wide-open window to make a move, and he takes it. Eventually, Ricky Bobby wins the race. Some other things happen between that “slingshot” scene and the end of the race, but you can go watch for yourself.
A lot like Ricky Bobby at Talladega back in 2006, Ohio State has a window in the coming weeks to make a move on the leaders in the Big Ten. Purdue, Wisconsin, and Illinois are tied atop the conference with a 10-3 record. The Buckeyes sit in a not-so-distant fourth place at 7-3, because they had two conference games postponed. They’re 1.5 games behind the leaders, and one game ahead of fifth-place Michigan State, which is 8-4.
Peeking at Ohio State’s next four games, they should either be favored to win or at the very worst slight road underdogs. They may not win all four (Rutgers, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana), but each individual game is winnable for an Ohio State team that, even after dealing with all of this start and stop nonsense lately, still has all of their goals right in front of them.
And they’ll try to make their move starting tonight in the RAC.
The No. 16 Ohio State Buckeyes (14-5, 7-3) are coming off a convincing 82-67 win over Maryland at home that, despite the Terrapins’ late push, was never close. All-American candidate E.J. Liddell was phenomenal once again with 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists, as the COVID-19 rust is long gone and he is once again playing like the possible National Player of the Year.
Zed Key had his best game since the Duke victory, scoring 14 points on 6-7 shooting while also pulling down 7 rebounds in 22 minutes. Justin Ahrens broke out of his nearly two-month long slump by scoring 14 points on 4-7 shooting over 22 minutes. The Buckeyes turned the ball over six times, which was the fewest they’ve had all season and the third consecutive game they’ve kept the TO’s in single-digits.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it checked most of the boxes you’d want them to check against a bad team at home. They’ll need to string several of those performances together if they want to make a run at Ohio State’s first Big Ten title in a decade, as they now have 10 games over the final 28 days thanks to those two postponements. There will be a lot of basketball, not many off-days, and a ton of shifting in the Big Ten standings over the next 28 days. Buckle up.
Rutgers (13-9, 7-5) has been quite a peculiar team this season, to put it lightly. They lost nonconference games to DePaul (KenPom No. 103), Massachusetts (KenPom No. 171), and Lafayette (KenPom No. 325) early in the season — losses that will absolutely kneecap their NCAA Tournament resume in a few weeks. They’ve also lost games to Northwestern, Penn State, Maryland, and Minnesota, who are in 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th place in the Big Ten, respectively.
But they also beat top-ranked Purdue at home not too long ago, and laid a downright beating on No. 17 Michigan State this past weekend, 84-63. So yeah, they’re kind of a difficult team to read based simply on their game results thus far. Despite their big win over Michigan State, they’ve still lost three of their last five games.
The Scarlet Knights carried a ton of experience over from last season. Despite losing two starters (Montez Mathis and Myles Johnson) to the transfer portal, they still brought back two big-time scorers in Geo Baker (11.6 PPG, 4.1 AST) and Ron Harper Jr. (15.9 PPG, 41.2% 3PT, 6.2 REB). They also returned one of the best defenders in the conference in senior guard Caleb McConnell (6.6 PPG, 5.1 REB, 2.4 AST, 2.1 STL). Junior guard Paul Mulcahy is blossoming into a reliable offensive weapon as well, averaging 18 points and 7 assists per game over his last three contests.
Steve Pikiell’s squad ranked No. 51 in KenPom’s adjusted defense, which is twice as good as Ohio State, which is ranked No. 102 in that category. Rutgers is second in the Big Ten conference in steals per game at 7.45 per game (Ohio State, by comparison, is 13th with 4.7 steals per game) and they are one of the best teams in the conference in forcing turnovers. With Chris Holtmann going to a three-guard lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, and Meechie Johnson lately, the Buckeyes’ young guards focus and decision-making will be tested against a very pushy Rutgers defense.
Rutgers is also 11-2 at home this season inside the RAC, an 8,000-seat arena that routinely fills up for Scarlet Knights’ home games. It’s proven to be one of the trickier places to play in the conference, but Chris Holtmann is 4-1 there in his career, and the Buckeyes have won each of their last two trips to the RAC.
This is a game that causal fans, or the ones who didn’t start paying attention until after football season, will be a bit shocked by. Rutgers has a lot of experience, a lot of size (only one starter shorter than 6-foot-5), and forces a lot of turnovers. They’re also great at home, and have been great at home for most of Steve Pikiell’s tenure there — not just this season. This team loves playing at the RAC, and the fans love making things hard on visiting teams. It’s never an easy task to win in Piscataway.
I think it’ll be interesting to see how quickly Holtmann breaks down and sends help defense at Cliff Omoruyi if Key struggles. At 6-foot-11, Omoruyi has a few inches on Key, but we’ve seen him handle bigger, stronger centers this season already (Mark Williams, Qudus Wahab, etc.). Rutgers is not a good shooting team, knocking down just 33.5% of their three-pointers this season, which is 10th in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes can probably afford to give Key some help on defense, because Ron Harper Jr. is the only Scarlet Knight who has proven to be a consistent threat from deep. That cat-and-mouse game will be a lot of fun to watch.
The big keys for the Buckeyes tonight in Piscataway are:
- Don’t let the crowd get into it. Do not allow Rutgers to go on any extended runs (8-0, 10-0, etc.) and let the crowd begin to impact the game. If things get hairy, Ohio State has the talent to gut out a close win. But they cannot let things snowball like they did at Purdue.
- It sounds obvious, but force Rutgers to bomb from three-point land as much as possible. The Scarlet Knights are the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in the B1G, and Omoruyi is shooting nearly 60% from the floor this season. Key, Kyle Young, and Liddell will need to collapse and make guys like Baker (32.7% 3PT), Mulcahy (30.9% 3PT), and McConnell (28.2% 3PT) beat them from deep. If they do, tip your cap. But more than halfway through the season so far, this Rutgers team has not shown the ability to consistently knock down those types of shots.
It should be an entertaining, physical game. Even if Ohio State builds a substantial lead, Rutgers will most likely punch back and keep it interesting. I think at the end of the day the Buckeyes are the more well-rounded team, and will pull away in the final few minutes.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 59.4%
Time: 7 p.m. ET