Basketball Preview: Ohio State Begins Big Ten Play Against Defensive-Minded Rutgers

By Griffin Strom on December 8, 2022 at 8:35 am
Zed Key
Vincent Carchietta – USA TODAY Sports

A month into the season, Ohio State finally gets thrown into the Big Ten fire against a red-hot foe in Rutgers.

Rutgers (6-2, 1-0 B1G) Schottenstein Center 7 p.m. ESPN2

The 6-2 Scarlet Knights are only on a one-game win streak, but they’re just five days removed from a statement win against then-No. 10 Indiana in which they held the Hoosiers under 50 points in a 15-point victory. Rutgers could make it back-to-back wins over ranked Big Ten teams Thursday, but it will have to play in Columbus against a Buckeye team that’s won every game it’s played at the Schott by more than 20 points.

“(They're) tough, really tough, well-coached, older team. A lot of familiar guys,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Monday. “They're now fully healthy, really, for the first time all year. Held Indiana to 48. I think they're one of the best defensive teams in the country, certainly one of the best we'll play. And so always very physical with Steve (Pikiell)’s team. Again, he does a terrific job and it's going to be a great challenge.”

Also 6-2 on the year, the 25th-ranked Buckeyes seek their fifth straight home win to start the season. There’s little doubt it would be Ohio State’s best home win thus far, having previously beaten four mid-major opponents in Columbus, 

Rutgers ranks No. 31 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin rating, and could represent a rude awakening at the start of Big Ten play for the Buckeyes.

What to Watch For

Elite O vs. Elite D

This matchup pits Ohio State’s No. 3-ranked offense in the country (per KenPom) against Rutgers’ No. 6 defense. Not only does Rutgers have the 2021-22 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on its roster (Caleb McConnell), but it gives up the fewest points per game in the conference (54.1), which is good for the fifth-fewest in the nation. Rutgers has the No. 7 field-goal percentage defense in the country (35.4%), and its 18 forced turnovers per game are also top 25.

“They're disruptive, they turn you over, they're great on the glass, on both the offense and defensive glass,” Holtmann said. “They're long, they're physical, really good. They have a terrific big who has now kind of grown into his own as a third-year player. And they've just got great positional size and length. So that allows them to be really good.”

Fresh faces stepping up for Rutgers

If you’ve paid attention to Big Ten basketball over the past half-decade, you’re probably familiar with longtime Rutgers guards Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, who manned the Scarlet Knight backcourt for the past four and five years, respectively. In every year since 2017-18, one of those two players has been among the top three Scarlet Knight scorers, and Harper was the team’s top option on offense in each of the past three seasons.

But both are now gone.

Several new faces, including Loyola (Md.) transfer Cam Spencer, freshman guard Derek Simpson and LSU transfer Aundre Hyatt (now in year two with Rutgers) have stepped up to replace much of that production on the wings. That trio is averaging 34.2 points per game, with each member scoring at least 9.1 a night.

OSU 4-1 in Big Ten openers under Holtmann

Ohio State’s track record in Big Ten openers under Holtmann is rock solid. In fact, the Buckeyes have only dropped one of the five they’ve played since Holtmann took the reins in 2017. The only loss came on the road against Purdue in 2020. Other than that, Ohio State has won all of its other four Big Ten openers in Holtmann’s tenure, with wins against Wisconsin (2017), Minnesota (2018) and Penn State (2019 and ‘21) to start the conference slate. Ohio State’s had five full days to prepare for its first Big Ten game this year, and also has home-court advantage against the Knights.

Three Important Buckeyes

Zed Key

In the first seven games before Big Ten play a year ago, Key was averaging 10.9 points per game in 22.3 minutes. From the Big Ten opener on, Key averaged just 6.8 points on 19.0 minutes for Ohio State. Key’s off to an even better start as a junior, with averages of 13.4 points and eight rebounds through eight games, but he’ll have to prove he can maintain that productivity through the slog of the conference schedule. That starts Thursday, and Rutgers’ size and style may require even more effort than usual from Key.

Justice Sueing

Since scoring a career-high 33 against Texas Tech, Sueing’s been relatively quiet. The sixth-year forward had a respectable 12-point outing at Duke, but shot just 2-for-7 against St. Francis to finish with six points in 17 minutes. Ohio State didn’t need a whole lot from Sueing in that one, but it might against Rutgers. Despite missing every Big Ten game a year ago, Sueing still has a full year of conference experience under his belt from 2020-21, which is more than most players on this Buckeye team can say.

Felix Okpara

Granted, the performance came against St. Francis, but Okpara had his best game of the season last time out for the Buckeyes. Okpara finished with his first-ever double-double on career-highs of 10 points and 12 boards, and perhaps it was the confidence booster he needed before the start of Big Ten play. While Holtmann isn’t likely planning to give Okpara an abundance of minutes at the start of the conference schedule, foul trouble, injuries or certain lineups may necessitate more time for Okpara depending on the game and circumstance.

Three Important Scarlet Knights

Clifford Omoruyi

Player Position Height Weight  Season Stats
CAM SPENCER G 6-4 205 13.8 PPG, 3.6 APG
CALEB MCCONNELL G 6-7 195 12.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG
AUNDRE HYATT F 6-6 225 11.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG
MAWOT MAG F 6-7 215 8.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG
CLIFFORD OMORUYI C 6-11 240 15.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG

Omoruyi took a major step as a sophomore, but he’s truly come into his own as the leading man for the Scarlet Knights in 2022-23. Omoruyi is Rutgers’ top scorer (15.4 points per game) and rebounder (9.8), and he already has three 20-point games and three double-doubles on his résumé through the first eight games. At 6-foot-11, Omoruyi has long had size and potential on his side, but now he’s put it all together.

“I think you really saw it last year, towards the second half of last year. And he was a five-star recruit from the Northeast,” Holtmann said. “So you knew a kid who's a five-star recruit going into the back half of his sophomore year, you're just saying, ‘OK, that kid, he's going to be a really good player.’ You even saw glimpses of it as a freshman. So they do a great job with him. And he's gotten a lot better. He's one of the best bigs in the country. Certainly one of the best bigs in the Big Ten.”

Cam Spencer

After averaging 18.9 points per game for Loyola last season, Spencer is the Scarlet Knights’ second-leading scorer this season. The 6-foot-4 guard is putting up 13.8 points per game on 45.6% shooting and knocking down 42.5% of his 3-point attempts. Spencer is also a primary distributor for Rutgers, as his 3.6 assists per game are the second-most among all Scarlet Knights.

Caleb McConnell

The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, McConnell can guard all five spots as a 6-foot-7 wing. McConnell is also enjoying the best offensive season of his career, putting up 12 points per game on 41.4% shooting to go along with 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists. A fifth-year senior for the Scarlet Knights, McConnell has been vital to the team’s stellar defensive marks thus far.

How it Plays Out

Line: OSU -5.5, O/U: 137

Given Ohio State’s offensive prowess and Rutgers’ defensive tenacity, this feels like an evenly-matched contest that could go either way. But the Buckeyes won’t be held to 48 points at home, and they have yet to get dominated inside even by teams with more size than Omoruyi brings to the table. I have Ohio State edging this one by a slim margin.

Prediction: Ohio State 69, Rutgers 66

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