No. 16 Ohio State looks to end skid on Senior Night

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It seemed only a matter of time before reality set in and Ohio State fell back to earth after an otherworldly 13-1 start in Big Ten play under first-year coach Chris Holtmann.

The Buckeyes crashed last week, losing back-to-back road games to Penn State and Michigan.

As a result, Ohio State (22-7, 13-3 Big Ten) dropped from No. 8 to No. 16 in the latest Associated Press poll and out of first place in the Big Ten standings.

Ohio State returns to action just two days after a 74-62 loss at No. 17 Michigan on Sunday, playing host to Rutgers (13-16, 3-13) on Tuesday night in its final home game of the regular season.

“Our top priority is to get the win,” Ohio State senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said Monday. “We have a sour taste in our mouth losing two back-to-back on the road. We know what it takes, and we’ve shown that we have what it takes.”

Now tied with ninth-ranked Purdue (24-5, 13-3) for second in the conference, Ohio State will need to win its final two games (Rutgers, at Indiana) and hope for a loss by conference-leading and second-ranked Michigan State (Illinois, at Wisconsin) to have a shot at a Big Ten title.

If the Buckeyes can at least hold onto second place and the Boilermakers (at Illinois, home vs. Minnesota) win out, they’d win a tiebreaker for the second seed in the conference tournament next week at Madison Square Garden in New York. The top four seeds receive byes in the first two rounds and won’t play until March 2.

“We’re still not satisfied where we are,” Tate said. “Our whole goal is to get back to where we were a couple of weeks ago and make noise in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Three Ohio State seniors — Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich — will play for the final time at Value City Arena against Rutgers. The Buckeyes also will honor leading scorer and rebounder Keita Bates-Diop, a redshirt junior who graduated in December and has one year of eligibility remaining but apparently plans to enter the 2018 NBA Draft.

“To make it a happy senior night, we’ve got to take care of business,” Williams said. “That’s job number one. It’s been a nice ride and it’d be nice to get a win for my last game at Ohio State.”

Tate led Ohio State in the loss at Michigan with game highs of 20 points and 15 rebounds. Bates-Diop checked in with 17 points and seven rebounds, but the Buckeyes’ reserves were outscored 26-6 by the Wolverines’ bench in addition to allowing 22 points off turnovers.

“The message is to continually tweak and improve the areas we’ve been exposed in — challenge our guys to be tougher and be smarter,” Holtmann said. “That’s what it’s about.”

Rutgers is trying to escape the Big Ten basement. The Scarlet Knights are tied at the bottom of the standings with Iowa after a 61-51 loss at Maryland on Saturday.

Rutgers guard Corey Sanders was held to six points on 3-for-14 shooting by Maryland after scoring 30 in overtime three days earlier against Northwestern in one of the Scarlet Knights’ three Big Ten victories.

“Nothing’s easy in this league,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “This is the best league in the country — I don’t care what anybody says — from top to bottom the best league. Trying to win on the road in this league is as hard as any league in the country. You gotta keep fighting.

“We gotta continue to work through it. We got three wins right now in the league, that’s what we had last season at the end. We got a couple more games to make that a little bit better.”