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Rutgers prepares for away contest at Ohio State

The Rutgers men’s basketball team will travel to face fellow Big Ten program Ohio State on Wednesday. The Scarlet Knights (17-7, 8-5) are coming off of a thrilling overtime win against Northwestern, extending their home record to a NCAA-best 16-0.

Rutgers has made it clear this season that it is a different team depending on where it plays. While it has been perfect at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), it is just 1-5 away from home. Additionally, it lost a neutral-site game at Madison Square Garden to Michigan at the Big Ten Super Saturday event. The Knights simply have not been able to perform to their potential without the support of their home fans.

If they want to solidify their NCAA Tournament chances, though, they need to figure out a way to steal a couple of road wins. The Buckeyes (15-8, 5-7) present a unique challenge. Although they are currently sitting 10th in the conference standings, their placing is misleading. They are not only receiving votes from the AP Poll, but also were ranked as high as No. 3 earlier this season. They are also 11-2 at home. 

Ohio State’s placement in the standings is more of a testament to the strength of the conference than anything else. For example, while Rutgers secured the victory against the Wildcats (6-16, 1-11), keep in mind that it was taken to overtime on its home court. The Knights never had the lead in regulation, and if it weren’t for junior guard Geo Baker’s 23-point scoring run after the first half, Rutgers would have lost that game.

The close nature of that contest goes to show not only the elite quality of the Big Ten, but also the unpredictability of it as well. One would not have expected Northwestern to come in and nearly hand the Knights their first home loss of the season, based on its losing record. With that being said, the Wildcats are clearly a talented basketball team. They simply happen to be in what is arguably the best conference in the nation.

If a last-place team is good enough to challenge Rutgers, imagine what a team that’s in contention can do. That’s what the Knights have to consider when preparing for their trip to Columbus, Ohio.

If Rutgers wants to get its first road win since Jan. 3 at Nebraska, it will have to step up and play a complete game. It can’t afford to try to dig itself out of an 18-point deficit this time. It needs to play well out of the gates, ideally with Baker picking up right where he left off.

“Geo did an awesome job,” said head coach Steve Pikiell after the Northwestern game. “During the timeouts, he was like ‘Coach, I got it. I got it.’ It’s a nice feeling. He got it going, and we needed every one of them.”

The Knights would greatly benefit from a similar performance from Baker on Wednesday. This is the time of year when a team leader can rally the troops and help push them to the next level. If he can pull it off, Rutgers has a legitimate chance against the Buckeyes.

With that being said, the Knights will need more to go right than just Baker's scoring. On defense, they have to key in on center Kaleb Wesson (averaging 14.9 points per game) and guard Duane Washington Jr. (10.8 points per game). They also have to keep up their rebounding and inside presence on both ends of the floor. If they can dominate on the glass, especially on offense, it can only improve their chances.

Rebounding alone is not enough, though. The loss to the Wolverines (14-9, 5-7) showed that getting boards does not help if they don’t turn into buckets. In that game, Rutgers out-rebounded Michigan 51-37. It didn’t matter, though, because it only shot 27 of 83 from the field (32.5%). 

The Knights have to shoot well as a team, especially on the road. In order to improve their efficiency, they can try and get high-percentage looks at the basket. Getting sophomore center Myles Johnson some layups early would also help.

Regardless of Wednesday’s result, though, it is important to remember how far this program has come since Pikiell was hired.

“I'm proud of these guys,” Pikiell said. “They took on the challenge. We didn't have a new practice facility. We didn't have (a ton) of tradition. We didn't have sell-outs. And those guys took on the challenge of trying to raise the program in the best league in the country."

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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