Prior to this weekend, the last time Ohio State secured a road win against a top-25 Big Ten team, Seth Towns was in the middle of his sophomore season at Harvard. Yeah, it’s been a while.
For the first time since beating then-No. 3 Purdue by a point on Feb. 7, 2018, the Buckeyes topped No. 15 Rutgers, 79-68, at the Rutgers Athletic Center to improve to 9-3 overall and 3-3 within the Big Ten.
Here are Five Things to take from the 11-point victory.
Found A Point Guard...For One Day
Jimmy Sotos wasted no time. Starting in place of the injured CJ Walker, he pulled up for a 3-pointer two minutes after the game tipped off. Bang. Four minutes later, he rose again from behind the arc. A second make in a row.
“Jimmy did a great job today stepping up and leading us, starting off the game got us a huge lift early on,” Kyle Young said.
Not since the Dec. 16 loss at Purdue had Sotos made a shot from the field. He’d gone 0-for-6 since then. But he came out firing, not lacking for confidence. With his energy and aggression sparking them at the beginning of the game, the Buckeyes put forth arguably their best half of the season, moving the ball well and playing more physically than the Scarlet Knights.
Sotos doubled up his previous season-high by playing 28 minutes, recording six points, four assists and three rebounds. With him at lead guard for nearly 3/4 of the afternoon, Ohio State didn’t miss a beat without Walker – its starter at point – rehabbing his right hand on the bench.
“I thought he played really well,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought he defended well. I thought he created offense with his ability to get in the lane. I thought his decision-making was good. I thought (Justice Sueing’s) decision-making was good as well. But I thought Jimmy settled us in a lot of ways, and he was able to keep their guards in front. I was really, really pleased.”
Until the 37th minute of the 40-minute game, it seemed as though Ohio State might have its answer at point guard going forward until Walker could return.
Then Sotos decided to dive on the floor. An admirable move by the fourth-year who transferred from Bucknell last year turned out to be disastrous. He came down hard on his right shoulder and got helped off of the court. Afterward, Holtmann said Sotos – who was visibly in pain – will get the requisite tests and they’ll know more about the injury in a couple of days.
If Ohio State receives good news on the Sotos front, it’s fair to expect to see a lot of him going forward with Walker out. If not? Things get dicey. Two other starters – Sueing and Duane Washington Jr. – would be counted on as lead ball-handlers, and Meechie Johnson could see an earlier increase in playing time than expected.
Johnson made his collegiate debut on Saturday, playing four scoreless minutes – and recording a four-trillion, which would please Mark Titus.
“I was really proud of Meechie,” Holtmann said. “I can't overstate how hard that is for him to get to campus when he got to campus, go through all the important stuff with the battery of tests, medical tests, just begin live practice two days ago and then play a top-15 team on the road. So I give him a ton of credit. It's going to be a slow build with him. I give him a ton of credit. Excited about him continuing to grow.”
Undersized Yet Impactful Frontcourt
Zed Key is listed at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds. Kyle Young is 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds. E.J. Liddell stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 240 pounds.
The trio of forwards gave up size to Rutgers center Myles Johnson (6-foot-11, 255 pounds) on Saturday, and they’ll be smaller than plenty of other big men within the Big Ten. That, though, hasn’t stopped them from impacting games in big ways.
Liddell scored 15 points against Rutgers with 12 of them coming in the first half when he made several mid-range jumpers and hit his second 3-pointer of the season. The early explosion led to traps later in the game when he let his teammates play off of him. He added a trio of blocks, which included one that led to a transition dunk for himself.
Young did the dirty work, scoring 13 points and nabbing five boards while seemingly seeking contact in a physical game. Key only played nine minutes off of the bench yet had eight points, six rebounds and two blocks in his moments out there. As Sueing put it, Key “comes in and set the tone” by playing with “heart” even if his youth and lack of athleticism limits him at times.
“Our forwards have played well for the bulk of the season, as you guys know,” Holtmann said. “The games that we've won, the teams that we've beaten, whether it's UCLA in Cleveland or whatever, our forwards – and I would include Zed in that in terms of our collection of forwards – have played very well. But when we've won important games or even had a chance to win a game on the road like Northwestern, our forwards have played very well. And they did that again today.”
“He’s Going To Send Me To An Early Death”
Washington has a funny way of pulling out some of Holtmann’s best one-liners. The head coach dead-panned this one after the 11-point win.
“I love him,” Holtmann said. “I love coaching him, but he's going to send me to an early death. I love coaching him, but he will send me to an early death.”
Fair. And he’s not alone.
The endless supply of confidence and feeling that he can make every shot on the court helps when he has things rolling, which he did for a good portion of Saturday’s game. Washington scored a game-high 17 points and made half of his eight 3-pointers. His team-high 34 minutes were a big part of why the Buckeyes had such control of the game.
But decision-making has never been his strong suit. The confidence borders on overconfidence every game, and it spilled over late in the game when he missed three of his last four shots and turned it over twice in the last two minutes.
“He brings joy to playing, which we love about him,” Holtmann said. “He brings joy to playing and brings a great spirit to playing the game and competing. Got a lot of confidence in what he can be. But no question he's taken years off my life.”
Energy, Toughness On Display
Sueing downplayed the impact of Johnson’s tweet sent following the mid-December 12-point win against Rutgers when the center accused the referees of “cheating.” He said Ohio State would have responded “really well” from its loss at Minnesota whether or not Johnson said anything.
It’s OK to wonder if he’s being truthful. But regardless of what spurred the play on Saturday worked.
Ohio State flew around, ball movement was on point and the guys on the court refused to back down from any individual challenges.
“We knew we needed to come out and be the more aggressive team,” Young said. “It's something that we've, I wouldn't necessarily say been lacking, but it's something we needed to improve on. Just setting the tone coming out, being the more aggressive team was important for us.”
Undoubtedly, Ohio State earned that title, winning the battle down low and on the glass in a big way. Several times, too, Rutgers players were jawing with the Buckeyes who eventually took care of business and got the win.
“Being the more physical, tough team is going to get you a lot – 50/50 balls, all that stuff,” Young said. “It's a lot of the small things that you could build that reputation around. It's something we definitely take pride on and we need to keep working on and continuing to improve.”
Celebrate Every Road Win In The Big Ten
A win or loss in January, even against a top-25 opponent, doesn’t define a team. But that won’t – and shouldn’t – prevent what happened on Saturday from invigorating the Buckeyes.
They won only five away Big Ten games the prior two seasons and started out this slate 0-2 on the road in conference play. These type of contests have been slogs before, and despite a late Rutgers run, they pulled out a win worth celebrating.
“It's hard to win on the road regardless of no fans, fans,” Sueing said. “Especially in the Big Ten where home court really means something. So for us to come out here at Rutgers and come out with a win is really big on us, and it shows some progression for our team in a positive slope for where we're headed.”
Holtmann added: “Guys have really embraced and bought into getting better. We know, I think as you said to me a month ago, we're a work in progress. We understand that. But our guys’ mindset and mood has been really good.”