It’s been a tough road for the Scarlet Knights since joining the Big Ten, but things are finally falling into place for the East Coast program. With 14 wins in the 2016-17 regular season, Rutgers doubled their win total from last year and even tripled their conference win total. All that was nice, but they still hadn’t won a Big Ten Tournament game.
Well, that changed on Wednesday night. The Scarlet Knights dropped Ohio State 66-57 in the first round of the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, bringing their record to 15-17 on the year.
Here are three takeaways from the first-round game at the Verizon Center.
What We Learned:
1. Rutgers Wanted It More Than The Buckeyes
In my estimation, Rutgers has more to gain from a win here. It would be their first-ever Big Ten Tournament triumph and would prove to their naysayers that they’re really a team on the rise.
Ohio State’s season is already a lost cause, so don’t be surprised if they come out flat on Wednesday night.
Those words came from my preview of Wednesday night’s game and I couldn’t have been more dead on. The Buckeyes looked listless at times, while the Scarlet Knights were constantly on the floor for loose balls and played with a maximum effort.
No stat proves that sentiment more than the rebounding numbers. The Scarlet Knights outrebounded the Buckeyes 47 to 31, while also grabbing 12 more offensive boards than Ohio State. As we know, a large part of successful rebounding is desire and Rutgers had that in droves Wednesday night.
It was clear as day that the Buckeyes weren’t as locked in as they needed to be. Their uninspired play was even mentioned by the announcers on television, also stating that the Buckeye bench wasn’t getting involved in the game.
Big Ten analysts questioning Ohio State’s effort and enthusiasm.— Dave White (@Dave_White) March 9, 2017
2. Nigel Johnson Is Loving His Role As Sixth-Man
While on the topic of the bench, Rutgers bench outscored the Buckeyes bench by 24 points. Leading the reserve unit was Nigel Johnson, and frankly, this win wouldn’t have been possible without him. The transfer from Kansas State led all scorers with 21 points and hit some huge buckets when Rutgers needed him most.
His biggest contribution came from the charity stripe, a place where Rutgers has been dreadful this year. He converted six free throws in the final minute and was a perfect 8 of 8 on the night.
Earlier in the year, Johnson was a fixture in the starting lineup. However, he missed one game due to injury and when he came back Steve Pikiell eased him back into things by bringing him off the bench. The only thing is, Johnson played so well off the bench that it stuck and was used as Scarlet Knights sixth-man to finish the year.
In his last six games off the bench, he has shot an incredible 53.5 percent (15-28) from beyond the arc, something that Rutgers has sorely missed this year.
3. The Dream Is Real
As I said before, Rutgers made a lot of improvements this year. However, the win over Ohio State took things to the next level.
Rutgers proved that they’re growing up right before our eyes. The team was confident when the game was on the line and truly believed it was their game to win. Earlier this year, they couldn’t put teams away late in games, falling apart in the closing minutes numerous times. (See: Wisconsin at MSG, Iowa on the road, Northwestern on the road.)
Steve Pikiell has this team believing in themselves more than they have all year. They took the momentum they built in their season-finale win over Illinois and brought it right into Wednesday’s game. They’re now on their first ever two-game Big Ten winning streak and have no plans of cutting it short on Thursday.
On The Horizon:
Ohio State currently sits at 17-15 and will probably miss out on the NIT. I believe the loss to Rutgers was their final game of the year and Thad Matta immediately gets to rebuilding for next year.
Do I think Rutgers can run the table in the Big Ten Tournament? Probably not. However, they played their next opponent (Northwestern) tough in both regular season games and are riding a serious high from Wednesday’s win. It wouldn’t surprise me if they made it into the third day of the tournament.
I think Nigel Johnson may have said it best after the win.
Rutgers enters Thursday’s game as seven point underdogs to Northwestern.