A month that lends its name to the insanely popular and unpredictable NCAA Tournament: March Madness.
Unfortunately for the Ohio State men’s basketball team, to reach March Madness, the Buckeyes (17-14, 7-11 Big Ten) will likely have to win the Big Ten tournament, which calls for five wins in five days.
On Wednesday, 11-seed OSU battles 14-seed Rutgers (14-17, 3-15 Big Ten) in the first round of the conference tournament in Washington, D.C., at 7 p.m. The winner will play sixth-seeded Northwestern (21-10, 10-8 Big Ten) on Thursday at 9 p.m.
“I hope (the players) understand that this is the funnest time for college basketball,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “This is where players play. You better have yourself ready to go — there aren’t a lot of secrets anymore. You got to go out there and play, you got to man up.”
The Buckeyes have played the Scarlet Knights just once this season, in Columbus, winning in an ugly, 70-64 affair on Feb. 8. OSU shot 46 percent from the field, but turned the ball over 15 times in the game, which came just days after OSU put together one of its best games of the season at Michigan.
Much has changed in the college basketball landscape in the month since OSU and Rutgers met, but the Buckeyes’ inconsistency remains, and Rutgers is still the hands-down worst team in the conference.
The Scarlet Knights are averaging just 60 points per contest in Big Ten play — at least six fewer than every other team. Rutgers also ranks last in the conference in free-throw percentage, scoring margin and field-goal percentage among other categories.
One strength that coach Steve Pickiell’s team has is its rebounding. The Knights average 37 boards per game, which ranks second in the conference. OSU has struggled rebounding the ball this season, allowing nearly eight offensive rebounds per game and ranking seventh in Big Ten play in team rebounding and opponent rebounding.
Rutgers is led by sophomore guard Corey Sanders who averages 14.7 points in league play. Sanders was the team’s leading scorer against OSU in February with 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
Matta said that last time out against Rutgers, OSU got caught up in playing Rutgers’ game by forcing quick shots and trying to move the ball too quick instead of running the Buckeye offense.
“The more I watch them, they want an ugly game,” Matta said. “We did not handle our offense real well, in terms of taking care of the basketball and getting the shots we wanted to get when we wanted to get them. We have to be a little bit smarter this go-round than we were last time.”
The Buckeyes are entering the tournament after a 96-92 loss to Indiana, where OSU couldn’t defend its own shadow at times. The 92 points is undoubtedly the offensive efficiency that Matta wants to see, but the defense — or lack thereof — is something OSU has to fix moving into the tournament.
“I know this: You have to play great defense in this tournament,” Matta said.
Redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson, who is averaging 10.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, said the team has put extra emphasis on the intricacies of the defense in attempt to fix the maladies from Saturday’s game.
On the offensive side, the duo of sophomore guards C.J. Jackson and JaQuan Lyle have played at a higher level of late for OSU. Averaging close to 25 minutes per game, Lyle has scored 17, 17 and 18 points, respectively, in his last three games coming off the bench. Jackson has scored 18 points twice in his past three games.
For the Buckeyes to have a shot at a run in the tournament, not only do Lyle and Jackson have to be phenomenal, the rest of the team has to be balanced — which is something that has rarely been seen this season.
“I feel like when we come ready to play, when we come with our ‘A’ game, we can beat anybody in the Big Ten,” Thompson said. “Then again, we know that if we don’t come ready to play, then we’re susceptible to losing.”
Junior forward Jae’Sean Tate, who scored 21 against Indiana on Saturday, said that if the team can replicate its performance against Wisconsin — an 83-73 victory on Feb. 23 — it can be difficult to beat.
“We don’t have no choice,” Thompson said. “Win or go home.”