Following back-to-back losses on the road, Ohio State returns home for Senior Day against a Rutgers team that is limping to the finish line of the regular season.
The Buckeyes are set to honor Jae'Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich on Tuesday night, the final home game of the 2017-18 season, in which Ohio State has already defeated the Scarlet Knights once, 68-46 on Jan. 14.
|Rutgers (13-16, 3-13)||Value City Arena||7 p.m.||BTN|
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said managing the emotions of Senior Day while focusing on the task at hand is a difficult, but necessary, challenge the Buckeyes will have to overcome in order to defeat the Scarlet Knights.
"These are emotional days and you have to find a way to manage the emotions in the midst of that, because the other team is coming in focused on winning the game," Holtmann said.
The first matchup against Rutgers was the last game Ohio State played as an unranked team before entering the Associated Press Top 25 as the No. 22 team following the win over the Scarlet Knights. Since, the Buckeyes have soared to as high as No. 8 in the country before falling back to No. 16 after losses to Penn State and Michigan.
Ohio State has lost two of its last three Senior Days, with a Feb. 28, 2016 win over Iowa marking the lone victory in the last three years, when Jake Lorbach marked the only senior Buckeye on the roster.
The Scarlet Knights have dropped eight of their last nine games, including a 10-point loss on the road at Maryland on Saturday, a game in which Rutgers shot just 37.9 percent from the floor and reached the free throw line just seven times, making four.
All season, Rutgers has prided itself on playing tenacious defense and keeping the score low, which gives the Scarlet Knights their best chance to win. The Scarlet Knights rank last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (65.2 ppg) but first in the league in scoring defense (62.6 ppg).
In order to get back into the win column, Holtmann said Ohio State will have to respond better to the Scarlet Knights' physicality than it did against Penn State and Michigan.
"You look at (Rutgers) overall, and some things pop out, and one of them is their ability to rebound the ball. They are fourth in the league in offensive rebounding percentage," Holtmann said. "Two, is how hard and physical they play. They have great size. It's as physical a team as we play in the Big Ten."
The Scarlet Knights, who have not won a true road game since Feb. 4, 2017, have received the majority of their offense this season from electric guards Corey Sanders and Geo Baker.
A junior, Sanders has led the charge offensively for Rutgers, leading the team in both points and assists. Both he and Baker have shown a superb ability to create their own shots off the dribble this season, while also creating shots for others. Holtmann said he has been impressed with how the Scarlet Knight big men play off of the versatile guards.
"When their guards are rolling, and their bigs are playing off of the guards, they make for a very difficult matchup," Holtmann said. "I am anxious to see how our guys respond to their physicality and length."
Perhaps Rutgers' most physical player is forward DeShawn Freeman, who ranks seventh in the conference in rebounds per game (7.7). Freeman has the ability to play inside or stretch the floor, but doesn't take many outside shots.
As a team, Rutgers is statistically the worst three-point shooting team in the Big Ten, connecting on just 28.7 percent of its shots behind the arc this season.
A large part of Ohio State's struggles in its last two games has been the lack of production from its guards, as the trio of C.J. Jackson, Andrew Dakich and Kam Williams has been shut down during the Buckeyes' two-game skid.
Against the Wolverines, Ohio State's backcourt trio combined for just seven points and two assists, while Michigan's starting backcourt of Zavier Simpson and Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman combined for 30 points, six assists and zero turnovers.
Holtmann said following the Michigan game that he is confident his guards will get better from the tough showing against the Wolverines.
"It's certainly telling the way that teams have played us, really for a while now," Holtmann said. "They are pressing our guards to make plays and we have to figure out as coaches if there are some things we can do. We have to challenge our guards to make better decisions in those situations. I am confident that they will."
The struggles Ohio State has had at the guard position have, at times, overshadowed the changes the Buckeyes played with in the frontcourt against Michigan. Kyle Young played a season-high 22 minutes in the loss to the Wolverines while Micah Potter was a healthy scratch.
Holtmann said that Ohio State's rotation, especially underneath, remains fluid depending on future matchups. Young's increased minutes have been a product of matchups, but also a consistent work ethic in practice.
"We will see him some, but it is going to depend on game-to-game. It is really hard to play 10 guys a lot of minutes this time of year," Holtmann said Monday. "(Young) has been able to get spot minutes, and when he has played more, that has affected other guys. I like the energy that he has played with. His motor has been good. He has been earning the right in practice to play."
Should Ohio State continue to go with its smaller lineup, which was seen in length down the stretch in a win over Purdue, Bates-Diop could see more playing time at the 'five,' while Young would play the 'four.' It is because he plays the same position as Bates-Diop that Young has seen limited minutes this season, at least until the Michigan matchup.
Moving forward, Holtmann said there is a chance Bates-Diop and Young will be on the floor at the same time, a lineup that would suggest Ohio State attempting to once again go small.
"He has been playing behind Keita a lot at the 'four' and that is going to limit your minutes," Holtmann said of Young. "We will see if we play those guys together. I think we will do it some, but I don't know how much we will do it."
How It Plays Out
Ohio State's matchup against Rutgers is coming at the perfect time for a Buckeye team that has played in three tough road environments in its last four games. The Scarlet Knights have not won a road game in more than a calendar year, and struggle to make shots from the perimeter.
Adding Senior Day into the mix, and the emotions of the game, combined with a willingness to get back into the win column, should give Ohio State all the motivation it needs to coast to an easy victory at Value City Arena.
Prediction: Ohio State 70, Rutgers 54