With Michigan defeating Nebraska last night, Ohio State finished in 11th place in the conference and will be the opening round opponent for Rutgers on Wednesday in Washington D.C.
They played once this season, when the Buckeyes won 70-64 in Columbus. It was a game that was tied with just over a minute to go. Rutgers was without Corey Sanders the final five minutes of the game, after he was whistled on a Kam Williams three-point attempt, followed by a questionable charge call on the next Rutgers possession and had quickly fouled out. He only played 27 minutes in the game.
That game showed the resolve of this team, as they continued to battle with Sanders on the bench and were within grasp of winning their second consecutive road game, after never winning one in 23 previous attempts in Big Ten play. They ultimately fell short, in part due to the fact that they shot just 40% from the field and were only 10 of 18 from the free throw line. The fact that they were tied in the last minute of regulation after missing so many shots from the charity stripe shows that the game was in their grasp. Here are three reasons to believe Rutgers can finish the job this time around and pickup their first Big Ten Tournament win for the program after losing the past two years.
In the six games since they played Ohio State, Rutgers has had a higher efficiency rating on offense in five of those contests. It’s not that the Buckeye defense stopped Rutgers, because they had a lower rating in nine of their previous eleven games in conference play before playing them. The Rutgers offense is just getting better and has continued to improve since their early February meeting. They shot only 45.7% from 2-point range in that game, which was their third highest mark of the season at the time. They’ve now exceeded that percentage in four of the past six games since. Heck, Rutgers is even shooting better from the free throw line, making 74% in 38 attempts in their past three games. If they can continue their upward swing, they’ll have a chance to get revenge.
Speaking of offense, Ohio State hasn’t been able to stop Corey Sanders in any of the three career games he has played against them. Sanders is averaging 20 points on 48% shooting from the field in those three contests, well above his career marks in both categories. The only thing that stopped him in their last meeting was foul trouble, as Sanders repeatedly was able to drive to the rim in the second half. His counterpart on Ohio State, JaQuan Lyle, has struggled against him in their past two matchups. After registering an impressive triple-double in their first meeting last season, Lyle has averaged just 3 points and 3 turnovers in the their past two matchups. Sanders will look to continue to attack the rim in this game, after finishing strong against Illinois, in which he made five key baskets down the stretch, all in traffic in the paint. The Buckeyes haven’t found a way to stop him yet, so there is reason to believe he will have another big game Wednesday.
I believe this team has really gelled down the stretch of this season and will have a world of confidence entering this contest. In their past eight games, they’ve won two, lost four by single digits, and lost handily to conference champion Purdue and third place Maryland. Rutgers just took down a red hot Illinois team who finished ahead of Ohio State in the standings (9th) and have a better KenPom ranking (68th v. 70 for OSU). The players on the team seem to genuinely care for each other and want to win together. Corey Sanders was visibly thrilled in the postgame for the seniors after Saturday’s win, as well as seeing Deshawn Freeman and Jake Dadika have their moments.
It’s certainly possible this team stumbles on Wednesday, but the signs are there for a strong effort. The coaching staff will have them prepared and this game is a huge opportunity to gain more respect within the Big Ten. The players know that. This team is hungry to prove the doubters wrong and don’t want the season to end. I expect at a minimum, a strong effort from this team in this game. We will have plenty more coverage leading up to Wednesday’s game and below is the full bracket for the Big Ten Tournament.