After a strong start to the new year with an easy win at Northwestern, Ohio State has fallen on hard times, losing three-straight games. Following a heartbreaking loss to Purdue last week, the Buckeyes lost at Maryland last Sunday, and on Thursday were upset by Minnesota, who were winless in Big Ten play entering the game.
Now Ohio State will have their work cut out for them if they want to end their losing streak, as they travel to New Jersey to take on Rutgers this afternoon.
Even though the Buckeyes got Zed Key back on the court on Thursday after he was injured a week before against Purdue, it wasn’t enough to propel Ohio State to victory against the Golden Gophers. Key came off the bench, scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 30 minutes on the floor. Key was one of five Buckeyes to reach double figures in scoring in the loss.
Ohio State started slow on Thursday night, but were able to shake the cold start to the game off to go into the halftime break trailing Minnesota by just a bucket, 37-35. The Buckeyes couldn’t capitalize on the finish to the first half, finding themselves trailing the Golden Gophers 64-53 with just over five minutes left. Chris Holtmann’s team turned up the defensive pressure to close the game, not allowing Minnesota to hit a field goal in the final five minutes.
Brice Sensabaugh was able to tie the game at 67 when he hit two free throws with eight seconds to go. Unfortunately for Buckeye fans, Bruce Thornton committed a ‘foul’ with one second left in the game, which led to Ta’lon Cooper splitting a pair of free throws. Adding more salt to the wound, the Big Ten come out on Friday and said the foul wasn’t one that should have been called.
Leading Ohio Sate in scoring in the loss was Sensabaugh, who finished with 18 points. The freshman also had 10 rebounds, which earned the forward his first double-double as a Buckeye. Along with Sensabaugh and Key, Justice Sueing scored 13 points, Sean McNeil netted 11 points, and Thornton added 10 points. Sensabaugh is Ohio State’s leading scoring this season, averaging 16.8 points per game.
Ohio State and Rutgers met last month in Columbus, with the Buckeyes earning a thrilling 67-66 victory thanks to a Tanner Holden three-pointer at the buzzer — which was the first walkoff winner for Ohio State since Evan Turner hit a buzzer-beater against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. The first contest between these teams was tight, with the final 13 minutes seeing the score not greater than a one-possession game.
Rutgers led 65-62 with eight seconds left before Bruce Thornton hit two free throws to make it 65-64. The Scarlet Knights split a pair of free throws to go up 66-64 before Holden’s memorable game-winner. Zed Key led Ohio State with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Cliff Omoruyi finished with 16 points to lead Rutgers in the loss.
The Scarlet Knights are coming of a 65-62 win on Wednesday night at Northwestern. The victory gave Rutgers their sixth win in seven games, with the only loss during that span coming against Iowa. Rutgers looked to have the game in control, leading 52-43 with just seven minutes to go before the Wildcats reeled off a 10-0 to take the lead. The Scarlet Knights regrouped, and Cam Spencer hit what would be the game-winning three-pointer with 15 seconds left to give Rutgers a 63-62 lead. Spencer finished with a team-high 23 points.
Not only did Spencer lead Rutgers in scoring last game, he is averaging 13.5 points per game, just edging out Cliff Omoruyi, who is scoring 13.2 points per game. Spencer is also a threat on the defensive end, averaging 2.5 steals per game, which leads the Big Ten and is seventh in the country. The Scarlet Knights have one of the stingiest defenses in the country, with the 56.5 points per game they are allowing ranking fourth in the country.
Even though their history is rather brief, Ohio State holds an 11-4 edge in the all-time series with Rutgers. The gap has closed a bit recently, though. Not only was the first matchup this year decided by just a point, last year’s contest saw the Buckeyes fall 66-64 in New Jersey. Ohio State was in control of the game before the Scarlet Knights finished the contest on a 10-0. Over the last four years it has been extremely difficult for opponents to leave Jersey Mike’s Arena with a win, as Rutgers is 52-10 at home since the start of the 2019-20 season.
Leading the charge by the Scarlet Knights to national respectability has been Steve Pikiell, who is in the middle of his seventh season as head coach. After coming to the school from Stony Brook, Pikiell has amassed a 110-96 record. If the Scarlet Knights can earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament this year, it’ll mark the first time in school history Rutgers has made the tourney in three straight years. The last time the Scarlet Knights made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years prior to making the tournament last year was 1975-76.
A fun matchup down low is going to be Zed Key against Cliff Omoruyi. The first meeting between the teams saw Key and Omoruyi combine for 38 points and 22 rebounds. Omoruyi is pretty much automatic if he gets the ball close to the rim, as he is leading the Big Ten with 39 dunks this year. The junior from Rutgers will be looking to break a recent slump that has seen him fail to reach double figures in scoring in each of the last three games.
Three Rutgers players have started all 17 games this season, with the trio being Spencer, Omoruyi, and Mawot Mag. The other two spots in the starting lineup have been shuffled at times. Aundre Hyatt has been available for all 17 games, starting nine of those contests. Paul Mulcahy has played in 13 games, starting 11 of those contests, while Caleb McConnell has 11 starts in his 12 appearances. Mulcahy came off the bench in the first meeting with the Buckeyes, as it was his second game back after missing four games early in the year. In Wednesday’s game, Hyatt came off the bench for the Scarlet Knights.
Sometimes Ohio State does their best work when their backs are against the wall. This would certainly be one of those times. The Buckeyes have to play with some urgency so they don’t fall even farther behind in the Big Ten standings. Trying to snap a losing streak isn’t exactly a position you want to be in when traveling to Rutgers, where the Scarlet Knights are so tough at Jersey Mike’s Arena.
One positive for the Buckeyes is they are starting to get a little healthier. Not only did Zed Key return after missing the Maryland game with a shoulder injury, Ohio State has been able to get more minutes from Issac Likekele and Eugene Brown III recently. Likekele missed about a month with a personal matter, while Brown was sidelined at the beginning of the season with concussion symptoms.
While Likekele and Brown won’t blow you away with their stats, they do a lot of the little things that the Buckeyes will need to do to earn some wins in the conference, as well as in March.
As great as it would to predict a Buckeye win here, Rutgers is a little too tough at home. This is going to be another game where both teams scratch and claw for everything. Unfortunately, this time the Scarlet Knights earn the victory.
Until Ohio State proves they can win on the road in tough Big Ten environments, it is going to be hard to trust this team. Chris Holtmann’s team fights hard, but like a number of other games this year, they fall just short.
ESPN BPI: Rutgers 66.5%
Time: 2:15 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network