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Game Preview: Ohio State at no. 15 Rutgers

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Includes how to watch, stats, injury updates, Steve Pikiell’s thoughts and keys to victory.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State (8-3; 2-3) at No. 15 Rutgers (7-3; 3-3)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: The RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey

Tip-off: Saturday, January 9 at 12:00 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin and Stephen Bardo

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/Sirius 108/ XM 195, Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM - Troy DeSavino and Raj Shah

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 29, which is 10 spots worse since the 23 point loss to Michigan State; Ohio State is 21, which is 10 spots worse since a 17 point loss to Minnesota.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 110.3 (45th) Defense 92.1 (30th); Ohio State - Offense 114.6 (10th) Defense 94.7 (57th)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 70 Ohio State 69; Rutgers is given a 54% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Rutgers -3

Series History: Ohio State leads all-time 9-3, including a 80-68 victory over Rutgers this season on December 23.

Ohio State SB Nation Site: Land Grant Holy Land

Key Contributors

Ohio State - 6’3” junior Duane Washington Jr. (14.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 37.5% 3-pt FG, 94.1% FT); 6’7” sophomore E.J. Liddell (13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.1 steals, 51.1% FG); 6’7” junior Justice Sueing (10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists); 6’1” senior C.J. Walker (8.7 points, 4.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 97.7% FT); 6’8” senior Kyle Young (7.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.0 assist); 6’8” freshman Zed Key (6.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 59.1% FG); ; 6’6” junior Justin Ahrens (5.5 points, 1.6 rebounds, 51.3% 3-pt FG); 6’8” redshirt senior Seth Towns (5.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 36.4% 3-pt FG); 6’5” junior Musa Jallow (5.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists); 6’6” freshman Eugene Brown III (2.5 points, 2.5 rebounds)

Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (21.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 52.6% FG, 46.8% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (15.2 points, 4.8 assists, 2.4 steals, 2.2 rebounds, 41.7% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (14.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 42.1% 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (9.4 points, 3.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (7.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 1.2 assists, 57.1% FG); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (6.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 37.5% 3-pt FG); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (5.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 block, 72.2% FG); 6’10” freshman Dean Reiber (1.4 points, 1.3 rebounds); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (1.0 point, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals. 1.0 assist in just 2 games.)

Injury Updates

Heralded freshman Cliff Omoruyi hasn’t practiced since suffering a knee sprain against Illinois on December 20 and is doubtful to play on Saturday. Geo Baker rolled his ankle late against Michigan State, but Steve Pikiell said that he was fine on a call on Thursday.

For OSU, starting point guard CJ Walker is out with a hand injury.

About Ohio State

Chris Holtmann is in his fourth season at OSU and after a 7-1 start to start, his team has lost two of its last three games. Quality wins include Rutgers (KenPom no 29), UCLA (KenPom no. 32), and Notre Dame (KenPom no. 90). All three defeats have come in Big Ten play to Minnesota (no. 28 KenPom), Purdue (no. 37 KenPom), and Northwestern (KenPom no. 60)

The Buckeyes play a core eight man rotation but can go ten deep when needed, which gives them a lot of depth and ability to mix and match different lineups. They aren’t particularly big, as none of the key players standing taller than 6’8”, but the majority of the rotation can play and guard multiple positions.

Ohio State hasn’t shot particularly well this season, as they average just 43.6% from the floor and 31.2% from three-point range. However, they are an excellent free throw shooting team as they have made 76.8% of their 259 attempts, while also being efficient in getting to the line

The Buckeyes have the 12th best turnover rate in the country at just 14.4% and have the 33rd best offensive rebounding rate nationally at 34.7%. They are defending well inside, holding foes to just 43.6% shooting from two-point range (33rd), but have allowed opponents to shoot 35.1% from three-point range (240th) overall.

OSU is has been balanced in Big Ten play, as they have the fifth best offensive efficiency and fourth best defensive efficiency. They are second in the league in offensive rebounding rate at 33.1%, but just 14th in three-point percentage (27.0%). Defensively, they have been much better in defending the three in allowing the second lowest shooting percentage in conference action at 31.0%, but are last in steal percentage at 4.4%.

Pikiell Pregame Thoughts

On the first game against OSU

“The way the game is called and then Jacob Young gets injured, just had a lot of obstacles in that game and the last four minutes didn’t play out the way we needed. But Ohio State’s good. That’s what these games come down to do sometimes, it’s a play here or it’s a defensive stop. We didn’t get them when we needed to and they did. You learn from it.”

The challenge Ohio State presents

“They’re going to be physical, they’re hard nosed, and they were plus-20 on the glass too. Michigan State got us on the glass and they did too. Really good basketball team as you know, Chris (Holtmann) does an unbelievable job. Liddell and they’re inside guys had career nights, so we obviously got to do a really good job on the backboards. They’re probably the most physical team in the league. We have to do a really good job of matching that. But again, another tough challenge in this league. They keep coming.

The differences from the first meeting with the Buckeyes

They put new stuff in. They are playing some new guys more minutes. Teams evolve as the year goes on. They changed some of their sets,” Pikiell said. “You can take a lot from that first game but, they evolved. We’ve added a couple pieces with Caleb and we got to get better in some areas, and hopefully we’ll look different than when we played him 17 days ago.”

The grind of the Big Ten

That’s what I love about the league too. You got to embrace that journey in this league and we’re getting ready to play one of the best programs in the conference and they’ve already beaten us. We got to really get ready and then hopefully we’ll have two good days of prep leading up to it.”

The mindset of Rutgers after the loss to MSU

“Hopefully disappointed, but in this league you get quick bounce backs. You can play really well and lose in a league like this. You have to play good basketball every time you take the court and every team poses different problems. But tip of the hat to Michigan State, they’re really good. We have to play better when we’re on the road. I hope our guys are disappointed but they also have to have short memories because we have Ohio State who has beaten us already.”

On the potential to schedule an opponent next week with the Penn State game postponed

Keys To Victory

Back to Basics

This game is as much about Rutgers focusing on themselves as it is worrying about Ohio State. This team needs to regain its identity with defense and rebounding. They played a strong first half against Michigan State on the defensive end, but fell apart in the second half. They haven’t had a strong defensive performance from start to finish the entire season and Saturday would be a great time to deliver one. OSU shot 59% from two-point range in the first meeting and that can’t happen again.

As for rebounding, the “all hands on deck” approach has been absent of late. Part of the issue is due to Rutgers getting stagnant on offense and hanging back around the perimeter, while also failing to crash the boards on both ends.

Pikiell spoke about the lack of rebounding in the losses to OSU and MSU (both -20 rebounding margins) and said, “We have to do a better job. We got to get more guys involved. It can’t just be Myles. Obviously having Cliff out, our second leading rebounder, hasn’t helped us either. Caleb will stick his nose in there. Paul will too. We just got to make a concerted effort and do a better job and our guards got to dig some out too. It’s a team thing and they’re aware of it and hopefully it’s not a continuing issue, but it has been in some games.”

The desire of this team to play better and respond with a victory on Saturday will be reflected in how they rebound.

Transition Offense

Ohio State prefers a halfcourt game and Rutgers can outrun most teams in the conference. They need to look to push the pace and generate high percentage shots in transition. OSU held a 10-3 advantage in fast break points in the first meeting, which is a big reason why RU lost. Montez Mathis and Jacob Young need to use their athleticism on the break and also finding shooters like Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker along the perimeter are ways they can flourish in transition.

Free Throws

This issue is two fold. While the obvious shooting from the line has been horrific, making just 7 of 24 from the charity stripe for a putrid 29%, the Scarlet Knights have also done a poor job of getting to the line. 12 attempts per game isn’t nearly enough, especially when you shoot a low percentage. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating, Rutgers needs Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell, Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy to get to the line more. They are all shooting 73% or better on the season, but only took 8 attempts over the previous two games. Baker hasn’t gotten to the line at all the past two games. Getting the right guys to the line will make a big impact in how the team shoots overall. Yes, Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis and Myles Johnson need to shoot better.

When asked about the struggles from the line after the loss to Michigan State, Pikiell said, “I don’t know. They can make a hundred in practice. They take a lot of them. And they’re good shooters, too. We’re a good 3-point shooting team, weren’t tonight, but if you can make threes with guys guarding you, you can make free throws too.”

Another key point in making free throws is thwarting momentum from the opponent. Pikiell added, “It doesn’t help that we can’t make a free throw to break up some of these runs.”

In addition, they can’t be overly aggressive and allow OSU to get into the bonus early in either half, as they could take advantage from the line.

Get Ron Harper Jr. going

After missing the Purdue game due to an ankle sprain, Harper Jr. hasn’t played close to the same level he did in the first 7 games of the season. It doesn’t appear that the minor injury is lingering, but it does seem he lost rhythm and is struggling to regain it. He is reliant on others like Young to help generate open looks for him, as he isn’t strong at creating off the dribble. He needs to let the game come to him a bit more while Rutgers needs to make it a point to run him off screens and look for him off of dribble penetration. Harper Jr. hitting a couple shots early in this game could go a long way to getting him back on track. Rutgers needs to do a much better on in sharing the basketball in this game. That will generate better looks for every player, which in turn will also make it harder to focus solely on Harper Jr.

Get Mojo Back

That ties into the last key, which is this team needs to regain its swagger. Their confidence has been bruised, but there is nothing like a little payback to get the blood flowing. They were mad after blowing a 16 point lead to Ohio State just two and a half weeks ago. This is their chance to get revenge, while also getting the season back on track after losing three of its last four games. One thing to also consider is that only four players have played in all ten games: Montez Mathis, Myles Johnson, Paul Mulcahy, and Jacob Young, who left the OSU game early. Three core players in rotation have missed 3+ games. Establishing some continuity with the rotation in the next few games is key, starting in this one. Also, I predict Ohio native Caleb McConnell, who didn’t play in the first meeting, has his best performance since returning from injury. Also read this feature from Jerry Carino to better understand what a warrior McConnell really is.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the eleventh game of the season, I chose “Impossible Weight” By Deep Sea Diver, which features one of my favorite singers in Sharon Van Etten. The Jersey girl’s soulful singing on this track is powerful, but I also think this track taps into something Rutgers is going through right now. The song has these lyrics:

“Dragging my heels around. But that was then and this is now. I tried so hard not to let you all down. It’s an impossible weight.”

The song ends with that weight letting people down, which is how some fans have felt. However, I chalk it up to a natural regression that this team needs to learn from in order to be better off down the stretch of this season.

They are fighting through a different type of adversity than they’ve encountered before. With high expectations for the season, after the great start this team has struggled to regain its form. There have been reasons for it, but the time to respond is now.

I said before the first seven games of Big Ten play that if Rutgers could survive it with a 4-3 record, they would be in good shape to make a run during the second half of the conference schedule. Beat Ohio State on Saturday and they’ll be 4-3. Achieving redemption and getting that bad taste out of their mouth will be a big step towards regaining their confidence moving forward.