Rutgers follows string of well-played games with sluggish 68-46 loss to visiting Ohio State
Finding consistency over a multiple-game stretch has been a struggle for the Rutgers men's basketball team all season, and that problem persisted yet again against Ohio State Sunday night.
The Scarlet Knights (11-8, 1-5) fell to the visiting Buckeyes (15-4, 6-0) at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), 68-46, in a game Rutgers hopes is just a blip among a string of well-played games.
"We have to play better ... We have to block more shots, we have to get more tips," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "And certainly again when we're playing an elite team like Ohio State, you have to play elite, and we obviously didn't."
The Knights got Ohio State in its best form all season, with the team coming off of four consecutive wins, one being an 80-64 rout to dethrone then-No. 1 Michigan State.
The two sides' battles against the Spartans — Rutgers' being a 76-72 overtime loss — are perhaps the greatest markers of the programs' readiness to challenge the top tier of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are knocking on that door, and with the win Sunday, they improve to 6-0 in the conference, a record the Knights are vastly missing out on.
Despite marquee wins over then-No. 16 Seton Hall and Wisconsin this season and close contests against Michigan State, the team has by and large failed to produce in the Big Ten. Its tough early schedule — facing the Spartans twice, as well as then-No. 13 Purdue and then-No. 12 Minnesota once — can take some of the blame, but that trend still carried into Sunday against Ohio State.
It did not help that senior guard Mike Williams was ruled out indefinitely before the start of the game with an ankle injury, since he is the team's most valuable player off the bench and is battling injuries for the second time this season.
"With or without Mike, we need to play better basketball playing Ohio State, teams like that," Pikiell said. "Mike's a leader, he's a captain ... but again, we gotta play better, and every guy's gotta step up their game a little bit more now with Mike not being around."
Still, Rutgers had to trudge on without the co-captain, and trudge is about the most apt word to describe the Knights' journey through Sunday's game against the Buckeyes.
The team shot 29 percent from the field, at one point missing 16 consecutive shots at the tail end of the first half. It was not a matter of particularly strong defense from the visitors either — Rutgers' shot selection was notably rough, with the majority of players settling for contested jumpers.
The same could be said of Ohio State early on, with the Knights' early defense limiting the Buckeyes' tries at the rim, especially with star Keita Bates-Diop.
Fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman denied him the ball for much of the first half, but Bates-Diop found his rhythm toward the end of the first half with different matchups, especially on the outside, leading all scorers with 10 points at the break on 2-of-5 from 3. He finished with 20 points, again pacing everyone on the court.
"I thought we had the right matchups against him, and we have shut down guys in the past," Pikiell said. "He's averaging 20, he got 20 tonight, we were trying to cut him in half."
Rutgers' defense, on Bates-Diop and on the rest of the Buckeyes for that matter, did not hold very long, with the Ohio State steadily upping its field-goal percentage as the game went on. The visitors' 10-point run to open the second half all but shut out the Knights' chances Sunday night, with the team looking sluggish out of the break.
Following a two-game stretch where Rutgers played some of its best basketball all season versus Wisconsin and Michigan State, the team regressed considerably throughout all 40 minutes Sunday night, aside from an outstanding 8-0 run from freshman guard Geo Baker.
It is a pattern the Knights have gotten used to over the last several games or so, as they triumphed over Seton Hall with consecutive losses to Hartford and Stony Brook.
After a victory over Wisconsin and an almost-toppling of Michigan State, Rutgers returned to the RAC with a dismal showing, especially on the offensive end.
Save for Baker's and junior guard Corey Sanders's second-half exploits, the team would have shot 20 from the field, a tough rate to swallow for a side that has shown it can knock off powerhouses.
"Just disappointed," Pikiell said. "Our offense didn't do a great job, but normally it doesn't matter what our offense does. Our offense shouldn't ever affect our defense ... We needed a great effort tonight, and I didn't particularly like how we let our offense affect everything we did on the defensive end of the ball."
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