PISCATAWAY, N.J. – This was a game that Chris Holtmann knew could be coming.

In moving to 12-2 overall with much-discussed road wins against Cincinnati and Creighton, coupled with a neutral-court win against UCLA and a 2-0 start to Big Ten play, Ohio State had climbed as high as No. 13 in the national polls at one point. But if you talked to Holtmann about that ranking, he’d be quick to tell you that the Buckeyes weren’t anything close to the 13th-best team in the nation.

It wasn’t just a coach trying to downplay expectations on a rapidly growing bandwagon. It was a coach quietly trying to bring expectations back to a realistic level for a team still with a lot to prove to itself.

Video! Watch the #Buckeyes take the court to face #Rutgers. See inside the huddle from above as @JoeySmoke14 fires them up: pic.twitter.com/Ihlv5e8Vg8

— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) January 9, 2019

Wednesday night’s performance likely did that. Although Holtmann had warned anyone who would listen that Rutgers was even more physical than the Spartans and that it would present the Buckeyes problems, his team went to the Rutgers Athletic Center, fell behind early, trailed for 29:41 and came away with a three-point loss that could likely drop it from next week’s rankings.

Rutgers is a solid team. It plays hard. So it begs the question: did the Buckeyes bring the necessary mind-set to go toe-to-toe with a team that would be playing with a talent disadvantage?

“I don’t know,” Holtmann told The Dispatch as he walked across the floor toward the locker room. “I would say obviously not. Obviously we didn’t get that message communicated clearly enough to them as coaches, because I think they beat us to way more loose balls tonight. They have big bodies and athletic bodies. I thought their freshman guard (Montez Mathis) was terrific, particularly late. He’s a good player. As a coach you’re saying, could you have done a better job making sure they understand the physicality of it?”

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Neither team distinguished itself early in an ugly start that saw the only field goal in the first 3:29 not actually go through the rim (it was a Rutgers goaltending violation). As several teams have done this season to usually solid degrees of success, Rutgers rolled out a zone defense, dared the Buckeyes to shoot and tried to neutralize Kaleb Wesson’s post presence.

The Scarlet Knights were able to use their length to affect the Buckeyes offensively, and they spent much of the first half beating Ohio State upcourt for transition opportunities.

“Some of those were off of turnovers and I think we did have some poor transition defense in the first half,” Holtmann said. “I thought we had some plays where we did not have very good floor balance.”

Wesson said Rutgers’ physicality matched what he had seen Saturday from Michigan State.

“They had big guys and they weren’t going to give in in the post and they were going to play you physically the whole game,” he said.

Ohio State would eventually figure things out and settle in before the end of the first half, closing with an 11-1 run to pull within a point at the break. They were down 31-30 despite having gotten only two points from Wesson, who battled foul trouble.

“We had a lot of mishaps and that kind of set us back and we didn’t weather the storm as well in the first half, but towards the end of the first half I felt we did better,” Wesson said. “I felt like we just got more connected. At the beginning of the first half we weren’t talking a lot and we weren’t very connected, so at the end of the half we had to bring the guys in and talk as leaders and get the guys right.”

Getting to the rim

Saturday, it was Michigan State guard Cassius Winston who did his damage against the Buckeyes during the second half, scoring 18 of his 25 points after the break to power the Spartans’ comeback. During the first half for Rutgers, it was Geo Baker who had 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting to lead the Scarlet Knights.

Then during the second half, it was Mathis who scored 11 points including back-to-back baskets to cancel out Ohio State’s three-point lead in the final moments before Baker hit a tough jumper to set the final score.

Holtmann said there are some issues with his team’s perimeter defense.

“Yeah, from good perimeter defenders I thought we had some plays that were disappointing,” he said. “The last play that Geo made was a credit to him, but the plays earlier were the ones that bothered me the most.”

The final three

And yet, the Buckeyes held a three-point lead with 2:37 to play and looked to be taking control with a 7-0 run. From there, things went stale in a hurry. Here’s how it went down:

• After a missed Rutgers basket, Jackson bricked a three-point attempt late in the shot clock.

• After a Mathis basket in the paint made it a 61-60 Ohio State lead, Ohio State called timeout to draw up a play but Andre Wesson misfired a pass to Luther Muhammad for an unforced turnover.

• After another Mathis basket, the Buckeyes wound up with a Muhammad jumper from the baseline that looked to have been taken from almost behind the backboard that didn’t fall.

• After Baker’s deep, contested jumper, Ohio State called timeout with 10.3 seconds left and executed its play perfectly aside from Jackson not being able to knock down the tying three.

“I thought we had a couple poor possessions,” Holtmann said. “C.J., I think, was trying to draw a foul on that one possession, and then we had a turnover against the zone. I love our last look. I loved that one, but that was about the only quality one.”

Added Wesson, “I just think we tried mostly not to flinch. We tried to stay connected, stay together as a team. Things happen. I remember turnovers, I remember missed blockouts, things like that. You have to keep talking through it.”

Numbers

• Rutgers was 1-23 all-time against ranked Big Ten teams since joining the conference. The lone win was a 67-62 home win against No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 11, 2015. Rutgers then lost it final 15 games of the season.

• Ohio State was 6-1 against Rutgers since it joined the league, and those six wins were by an average of 18.3 points.

• The Scarlet Knights had won only 13.2 percent of their Big Ten games (10-66) since joining the league.

• This was Holtmann’s first loss to a sub-100 KenPom.com team since a 72-71 road loss to Indiana State while at Butler on Dec. 7, 2016. Indiana State was ranked No. 136; Rutgers entered Wednesday ranked No. 115.

Threes aplenty

For the season, Ohio State had taken 37.2 percent of its shots from three-point range, making 36.7 percent of them. With Rutgers packing the paint and extensively utilizing a zone defense, the Buckeyes attempted 26 of their 58 (44.8 percent) shots from three and made eight of them (30.8 percent).

At one point, the Buckeyes had taken half of their shots from deep in part due to Wesson’s foul troubles.

“It’s probably too many threes, but we had some good ones,” Holtmann said when I asked if they settled for too many. “I did like the ones we took.”

Jackson, a 41.8-percent three-point shooter, was 2 for 9. Freshman Duane Washington, a 36.7 percent three-point shooter, was 1 for 4.

“How many nights is C.J. going to shoot 2 of 9?” Holtmann said. “He had a lot of clean ones, including that last one. Duane was 1 of 4. I liked his looks, but there were probably a few too many.”

Milestone

Wednesday was a milestone game for two men involved with the program. Associate athletics director for communications Dan Wallenberg and play-by-play radio broadcaster Paul Keels both marked their 700th game covering the Ohio State men’s basketball program. The Buckeyes, by the way, have been 499-201 during the two men's tenure.

Quotable

“I think Luther’s level-headed. I didn’t think this was a big game for him. He had family here, but he was going to play the same as if nobody was here. Luther’s not going to get too high, not going to get too low.” – Wesson, on Muhammad returning to New Jersey, where he played for Jersey City Hudson Catholic.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy