PISCATAWAY, N.J. – For nearly three-quarters of Sunday night’s game, the events on the court at the Rutgers Athletic Center looked like a broken video game.
Rutgers, known equally for its stout defense and ugly offense, found itself without important swingman Mike Williams after he injured his ankle during Saturday’s practice. But even factoring in all of that, what Ohio State did to the Scarlet Knights for much of the game bordered on the absurd.
At the half, Ohio State held a 13-point lead despite only having 28 points because Rutgers had 15. The Scarlet Knights were 6 for 31 (19.4 percent) from the field and 1 for 10 (10.0 percent) from three. Ohio State was 11 for 29 (37.9 percent), and Keita Bates-Diop’s four field goals had him only two behind the entire Rutgers roster despite needing 10 shots to get there.
Until Geo Baker his a three-pointer with 13:13 to play, Rutgers had 18 points through 26:47. It nearly defied explanation, and Rutgers needed a strong finish just to get to 28.8 percent for the game.
How did this happen?
“I think we were just contesting their shots,” Bates-Diop told The Dispatch. “We knew their kind of game plan and how they play so we scouted really well and made them take tough shots. And we rebounded out of that.”
That latter part was certainly true. Ohio State finished with a 46-30 rebounding advantage, the second-worst effort of the year for a Rutgers team that had the fifth-best rebounding margin in the conference. More on that later.
“It was a little odd because you’re not used to that, but we knew they were going to make a run eventually,” junior guard C.J. Jackson said. “They’re in their home gym and used to the rims. When they did make the run we just had to keep grinding and play the full 40 minutes.”
Coach Chris Holtmann gave the credit to his assistants and in particular Terry Johnson and Mike Schrage, who primarily oversee the defense.
“I really give credit to our assistant coaches for the way that they prepare our guys game-in and game-out,” he said. “Ryan (Pedon) does a fantastic job with the offense, and Terry and Mike really coordinate the defense. I think our guys have embraced that. I think you’ve got to have a group that believes in it and buys into it and your coaches have to do really good, detailed work and I think all three of those guys do a fantastic job.”
It helped, too, that Ohio State was strong with the ball. Although their string of games with single-digit turnovers ended at three, the Buckeyes only had 11 tonight. That’s the second-fewest by a Rutgers opponent all season.
Jackson led the way with six assists and just one turnover. He said the coaches allowed the scout team to foul more in preparation for this game and that the Buckeyes practiced against defenders holding extra-long sticks to simulate what Rutgers can do.
“Just being poised,” he said. “We work on every day just handling pressure, guys getting into us. We knew that it was going to be a tough game because a lot of teams that came in her ehad ot grind it out or weren’t able to win, so we just wanted to stay calm and poised under the pressure.”
Holtmann took credit for the final turnover of the game, a charge called on Jae’Sean Tate with 3:48 to play that fouled him out of the game. Otherwise, the game marked a sign of growth for a stable of guards that continues to distance itself from its early-season struggles.
“For C.J. to only have one (turnover) and six (assists), that’s a major step forward for him,” he said. “I’m just so pleased for him, because those guys can really hawk the ball.”
In addition to winning the rebounding battle, Ohio State limited Rutgers to nine offensive rebounds. That’s the third-lowest total of the season for the Scarlet Knights. Bates-Diop was a big part of that, as all nine of his rebounds came at the defensive end.
Holtmann said he doesn’t exactly look at the straightforward rebounding numbers but otherwise was still pleased with the results.
“We really tried to emphasize it,” he said. “I just think our guys, the biggest thing I’m looking at is offensive rebounding percentage as much as anything. I don’t really look at total rebounds. I’d have to total those up to see what they are, but we just really tried to emphasize (it) and not get into too much scramble mode because if you do, you’re going to be in trouble with these guys. They are just really committed to out-rebounding you.”
Rutgers missed 38 shots and grabbed 23.7 percent of them.
In addition to his game-high 20 points and nine rebounds, Bates-Diop finished with five blocks. Three of them came early in the second half, all of which were at the expense of Deshawn Freeman.
I asked Bates-Diop how he was able to do that.
“It’s just a 7-3 wingspan and pretty good anticipation, too,” he said. “I know he likes to go over his left shoulder and pump-fake and go around if he goes over his right, so it was time to look.”
I had to wonder: can he see that having a demoralizing effect on an opponent?
“It’s got to be,” he said. “If that happened to me, I’d be very sad, if that happens to me.”
Ohio State freshman walk-on Connor Fulton did not make the trip after taking a blow to the head during Saturday’s practice in Columbus, a team spokesman told The Dispatch. He was left home as a precaution, and his status for Wednesday’s game at Northwestern is unknown.
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell handled his postgame press conference solo. When asked why he didn’t bring any players with him, he replied that he uses such duties as rewards for stars of the game and couldn’t find any tonight.
“Let me do it, and these guys can start watching some film tonight,” he said.
Once he was done, Pikiell shook hands with every reporter in the room and thanked them for covering before he departed.
Fun With Numbers
*Rutgers entered the game 11-3 when holding opponents under 70 points, and Ohio State was 0-3 when not topping 70 points this season.
*Rutgers had the Big Ten’s best defense, allowing only 61.7 points per game. Ohio State had the Big Ten’s fourth-best offense, averaging 80.0 points per game.
*Holtmann is now the fourth Big Ten coach to open his conference slate with six straight wins and the first since Iowa’s Tom Davis in 1987.
*Although Rutgers was the Big Ten’s worst team at shooting (41.4 percent) and three-point shooting (29.4 percent), it improved on the latter category. The Scarlet Knights shot 28.8 percent from the floor overall and shot 33.3 percent from three.
*Ohio State held a 32-14 advantage in the paint and a 17-5 edge in second-chance points.
“I just think you can preach it and talk about it and talk about how they’re going to be physical and how they’re going to pressure you, and then you see it in person and you feel it and you’ve got to adjust a little bit. We didn’t always make real intelligent plays with the ball. We’ve got to get better at that. I thought we had some really careless offensive plays in the first half, but our guys did figure it out and our defense carried us.” – Holtmann, on preparing for Rutgers’ defense.