After earning a first round bye, the Northwestern Wildcats (21-10, 10-8 Big Ten) will take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (15-17, 3-15 Big Ten) in the Big Ten Tournament at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. on Thursday night.
Rutgers dominated the second half against Ohio State on Wednesday to pull the upset in the 11-14 matchup by a score of 66-57. Nigel Johnson led the way for Steve Pikiell’s team, scoring 21 points off the bench in 22 minutes, with Deshawn Freeman adding 10 points. Jae’Sean Tate led the Buckeyes with 18 points and six rebounds.
It was the first Big Ten Tournament win ever for Rutgers, which joined the conference in the 2014-15 season.
Northwestern and Rutgers played twice during the regular season, with the Wildcats taking both matchups. Both games were pretty close — within three points at the half — before Northwestern pulled away late.
In the first meeting, at Rutgers on January 12th, Vic Law scored 23 points and Dererk Pardon posted the rare 8-point, 11-rebound, 8-block stat line. As a team, the Wildcats blocked a total of 15 shots for a program record. Corey Sanders scored 18 for the Scarlet Knights.
At Welsh-Ryan a month later, Rutgers actually led for most of the second half before a Bryant McIntosh three-pointer with just under a minute left to play gave Northwestern a late lead it wouldn’t relinquish. McIntosh scored a game-high 18 points.
The Scarlet Knights outplayed Northwestern in two of the four halves the teams played this season, so Thursday’s game will be far from a cake walk. Rutgers also took Wisconsin to overtime and, save for multiple late-game blowups, would easily have more than three Big Ten wins.
Pikiell — in his first season in Piscataway — has Rutgers trending in the right direction and with four (essentially) double-digit scorers, the Scarlet Knights have their fair share of playmakers. Rutgers is the worst shooting team in the Big Ten, but makes up for it by attacking the offensive glass with relentless ferocity. Led by CJ Gettys and Deshawn Freeman, the Scarlet Knights rebound nearly 38 percent of their misses, which ranks in the top-10 nationally. Against the Buckeyes, Rutgers grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and turned them into 22 second-chance points.
Sanders and Nigel Johnson, who had a game-high 21 points on Wednesday, are athletic guards and streaky outside shooters. The big problem is at the charity stripe, as Pikiell’s team has converted on only 62 percent of its free throws. That’s the sixth-worst mark in the entire country.
The game will be broadcast on ESPN2, with the scheduled start time set for 8:00 pm CST. But, with Indiana-Iowa tipping in the 7-10 game at 5:30 pm CST, an especially long time could push Northwestern-Rutgers back.
Game time: 8:00 p.m. CT
TV Channel: ESPN2
Mobile: ESPN app
Radio: WGNRadio.com, WYLL 1160 AM, Sirius 84, XM 84
Betting line: TBD
KenPom prediction: Northwestern 66, Rutgers 59 (76% chance NU wins)