Rutgers looks to extend its best Big Ten start when the No. 11 Scarlet Knights oppose No. 23 Ohio State on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio.
After defeating then-No. 13 Illinois 91-88 on Sunday, Rutgers (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) appears to be one of the top teams in what many consider the best conference.
Not that Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell is ready to listen to that sort of talk.
“We don’t spend a lot of time, quite honestly, on that stuff,” he said. “We know we’ve got four ranked teams in our next five games, I think. In our league, you’re always playing ranked teams. That’s the league we’re in.
“We don’t spent lot of time talking about expectation. We’re talking about winning the next game. It was definitely a 40-minute game and to put up 91 points on board for us is a good sign for us moving forward, but we turn our attention quickly to a really good Ohio State team.”
The Buckeyes (6-1, 0-1) responded to a 67-60 loss at Purdue in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 16 to defeat UCLA 77-70 on Saturday at Cleveland.
Ohio State regained the services of leading rebounder E.J. Liddell vs. the Bruins after he missed two games because of mononucleosis. He had nine points and three rebounds in 19 minutes against the Bruins before fouling out.
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann is anxious to get Liddell back to full strength, starting against Rutgers.
“When you lose a player of his caliber, it affects you,” Holtmann said.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, freshmen Zed Key and Eugene Brown III picked up the slack after Liddell fouled out and made their first major contributions to the team this season.
With the score tied at 63, Key blocked a shot before Brown made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to give the Buckeyes a lead they would not relinquish.
“Our two freshmen were outstanding,” Holtmann said. “What it says about those guys is they just stayed ready. Both of them stayed ready.”
Rutgers will rely heavily on Ron Harper Jr., who had 28 points and nine rebounds against Illinois. He has scored 20-plus points in four games and reached at least 15 points in every game this season.
However, what impressed Pikiell more than the individual play was the team effort that led to a 35-34 rebounding edge over Illinois. He knows that stat is one that can lead to success in the physical Big Ten.
“The guys on my staff did a good job of preparing the guys,” he said. “We went head to head with them on the backboard. We pride ourselves on a being a good rebounding team, too. I was excited, we got 15 offensive rebounds.”
The game against the Buckeyes may come down to a battle of the boards, and Holtmann, despite being pleased with most aspects of the win over UCLA, voiced some concern.
“I thought it was our best performance of the year,” he said. “We played with more poise and purpose at both ends. We certainly weren’t perfect. We gave up 18 offensive rebounds. That’s far from perfect.”
–Field Level Media