Rutgers opens Big Ten Tournament looking for revenge against Ohio State
From now until the next time it loses, the Rutgers men’s basketball team is fighting for its season.
After taking a short 3-hour bus ride down I-95, the 14th seeded Scarlet Knights (14-17, 3-15) face 11-seed Ohio State (17-14, 7-11) in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament Wednesday night at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the incentive of playing another game, Rutgers will be looking to avenge one of the many late-game collapses it suffered during the second-hardest Big Ten regular season schedule, according to KenPom, in which it fell by single-digits 10 times.
In this case, it took a four-point play from Kam Williams in the final minute of a 70-64 win for the Buckeyes to bury the Knights that reversed a late 12-point deficit to tie it up with 79 ticks to go, despite leading scorer Corey Sanders fouling out with five minutes to go.
“I think anytime you’ve played the team and we were in the game on the road, I think you learn from it,” said head coach Steve Pikiell Monday morning in a Big Ten coaches teleconference. “You learn from some of the things you did well in it and you learn from the things you didn’t do so well.”
Though the results have not been too good since that trip to Columbus a month ago for the Knights, who lost five straight games after facing the Buckeyes, the play on the court has.
With the exception of double-digit losses to Big Ten regular season champions No. 13 Purdue in West Lafayette and at home to second place Maryland, Rutgers kept those losses to single-digits. Among those losses were near upsets of Michigan at home and Northwestern in Evanston, a loss which would’ve almost certainly spoiled the Wildcats’ historic National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament appearance hopes.
“It just shows you we can compete with anybody,” Sanders — who was named an all-Big Ten honorable mention Monday — said. “That’s what we’re taking from (this season).”
Ohio State, to its credit, has seen similar improvements.
Before losing to Indiana on the final day of the season to guarantee an 11th seed in the tournament, the Buckeyes were winners of two straight, including a signature win over third-place Wisconsin at home.
They can count on a more healthy Ja’Quan Lyle — their third leading scorer who played just 16 minutes, only two of which in the second half, in that earlier meeting with the Knights — in the nation's capital.
“They’re different and we’re a little different from that last time that we played,” Pikiell said. “So hopefully we play with great energy and playing at neutral site here and coming off a win for us which we desperately needed, maybe we can go down there with a little of a positive vibe.”
It gives the Knights a boost of energy heading down to D.C., the first host city not named Chicago or Indianapolis in the Big Ten Tournament's 19-year history.
If the team corrects the mistakes of the past and builds on the momentum of its season-closing win, Rutgers may be making tournament history in its own right — earning its first ever Big Ten Tournament win on its third attempt.
“I’m just confident in my team that we can win games, which I think we’re all confident we can win games if we play right,” Sanders said. “So I’m not too big-headed about the win, though it feels good and it feels good to win before you go on to the Big Ten Tournament. We’re just going to keep working and try to win more games there.”