Rutgers turns page from near upset over Michigan State to home matchup vs. Ohio State
On Sunday night, the Rutgers men's basketball team welcomes one of the hottest teams in the country to the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
Ohio State (14-4, 5-0) is one of two remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten and are coming off two dominant wins, a 16-point triumph over then-No. 1 Michigan State and a 22-point blowout over Maryland.
The Buckeyes boast one of the best players in the country and the Big Ten's leading scorer in Keita Bates-Diop, who is averaging 20.3 points per game and ranks third with his 8.8 rebounds per contest.
"He's as good a player as there is in the league," said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. "He's a matchup nightmare. They all go to him. They know he's the guy."
But another challenge for the Scarlet Knights (11-7, 1-4) will be turning the page from a near upset on the road against No. 4 Michigan State. Rutgers came back from an early 14-2 deficit and was able to take the lead with under a minute left.
But the Spartans were able to tie it on a free throw with 8 seconds left and sent the game to overtime, where they would ultimately come away victorious.
Sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi played a stellar defensive game, helping the Knights shut out star forward Miles Bridges in the first half and holding Michigan State to a season-low 59 points in regulation.
Omoruyi credited the preparation of the team and game planning by the coaches for their near-upset, but noted that it was hard to stay in the game when four players fouled out. In total, Rutgers was whistled for 29 fouls, while the Spartans were called for 19. The hosts also took 34 free throws in comparison to the Knights' 15
"We were all focused. We all knew the game plan. We just had to stick to our principles and stick to our defensive game plan," Omoruyi said. "I felt like we executed it well to the final buzzer. ...We'll see them in the Big Ten Tournament, that's what I have to say."
With that game now firmly in the rearview, Rutgers has shifted focus to Ohio State, who leads the Big Ten with a 47 percent mark from three-point range in conference games, which is significantly better than the second place mark of 41.7 percent by Purdue.
If the Knights want to cool off the hot-shooting Buckeyes, they will need to stick to their game, which is centered around defense and taking care of the ball on offense. Their 61.7 points per game allowed and +4.4 turnover margin are both tops in the Big Ten and are in a back and forth battle with Michigan State for the top spot in rebounding categories.
"I like the fact that we're taking care of the ball. I think that's a huge improvement from last year. I think we've shown signs on the defensive end," Pikiell said. "...We've mixed in a lot more defenses."
When facing star players like Bates-Diop, Rutgers has shown the ability to prepare at an exceptional level. In their last game, the Knights held Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Miles Bridges to his second-lowest point total of the season with 11 and a season-low 30 percent shooting from the field.
The game before that, they forced unanimous Preseason All-Big Ten player Ethan Happ into a career-high 7 turnovers in a win over Wisconsin.
Pikiell and Co. have their work cut out for them, as the Buckeyes have playmakers outside of Bates-Diop that can have a big impact. Guard CJ Jackson is the second-leading scorer on Ohio State, averaging 13.6 points per game, but more impressively is shooting a clinical 44 percent from deep, while being the team's best passer with 4.3 assists per contest.
Containing Bates-Diop will be key to beating the Buckeyes on Sunday, but Rutgers will need every bit of its Big Ten-leading three-point defense and a better offensive output for a realistic shot at upsetting the hottest team in the conference.
"They're at a great rhythm and they play at a great pace and they have the player of the year if the year ended (today)," Pikiell said. "It's gonna be a challenge...We gotta do a real good job, we gotta execute at a high level on both ends of the floor."