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Rutgers Men's Basketball Game Preview: At Illinois

Hope is bleak tonight as Rutgers plays on the road against Illinois without star point guard Corey Sanders.

William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

TV: 9:00 pm on BTN

Radio: Rutgers IMG Radio Network WOR (710 AM) & WCTC (1450 AM); WRSU (88.7 FM)

Spread: Illinois - 14.5

Roster Update

Corey Sanders is suspended for two weeks and will miss tonight's game. Deshawn Freeman, Shaq Doorson, and Ibrahima Diallo have all been declared out for the season.  Rutgers has seven active scholarship players for tonight's game.

Rematch With Illinois (KenPom #124)

Game #1 Recap - 3OT 110-101 loss

Illinois enters tonight's game with an 11-14 overall record and 3-9 record in the Big Ten. Their last win was over Rutgers on February 3rd.  The backcourt duo of junior guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are the strength of this team, as they combine to average 35 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game.  The duo struggled at the RAC, shooting just 10-32 combined from the floor.  Even so, Hill went 17-20 from the free throw line and scored 32 points, along with 14 rebounds and 5 assists.  Nunn was also effective on the glass, grabbing 13 rebounds.  Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands had a breakout game against Rutgers with 26 points, including six three-pointers.  He has continued to flourish, averaging 15 points on 9-20 from behind the arc in his past two games since playing Rutgers. 6'10" center Maverick Morgan hurt Rutgers last time out as well, scoring 20 points while shooting 10-13 from the floor.

Illinois only averages 10 turnovers a game, and they only had 11 turnovers in the triple overtime win at the RAC. They are not a strong shooting team, as they only average 42.8% from the floor.  They shot just 36.8% from the floor Saturday in a 2 point loss on the road at Northwestern. The Illini aren't deep as they have had a similar amount of injury issues as Rutgers this season.

Keys To The Game

Seniors Must Step Up

With Sanders out, Rutgers has no natural point guard on the roster.  Bishop Daniels has played the point at times this season, but it has not been pretty.  Lately, the couple of minutes Sanders has sat out during a game, it seems to be more of a collective effort bringing the ball up the court.  Regardless, Daniels and Omari Grier need to take responsibility tonight and get the team into their offense.  Both players are much better off the ball, especially Daniels.  It's important for him to stay in attack mode and look to create off the dribble.  He has a tendency to fall in love with contested jumpers at the top of the key, despite having little success.  I have more faith in Grier and hope he takes charge in making sure Rutgers spreads the floor and works the ball around in the halfcourt.  Center Greg Lewis was able to own the boards two weeks ago against the Illini, grabbing 16 rebounds, including 7 on the offensive glass. Rutgers needs a similar effort tonight from the big fella.  All three need to play smart and light a fire under this team for them to have any shot to win the game tonight.

Attack The Boards

Rutgers held a 52-43 rebounding edge in game one, with Lewis being a big reason why. However, guards Daniels, Grier and Mike Williams combined for 12 boards and Jonathan Laurent had 8 rebounds.  It was a total team effort and they made a point to crash the boards after most shots, and grabbed a season high 17 offensive rebounds.  They need to do the same tonight.  One player who needs to step up is D.J. Foreman, who only had 5 rebounds in the triple overtime loss to Illinois. He must be more assertive tonight and be a disruptive force in the paint on both ends of the floor.

Drive, Drive, Drive

Sanders was very effective with dribble penetration in the first meeting between these teams. Rutgers will not have that luxury tonight, but other players had success in the first meeting as well.  Where will the points come from tonight? Mike Williams and even Omari Grier had their moments getting to the rim and scoring close to the basket against Illinois in their last game.  Laurent had the best game of his career, dominating the lane and scoring almost at will. He shot 9-14 from the field and was 5-6 from the free throw line, scoring a career high 23 points.  Getting Laurent the ball in the paint in a position to score will be a major key tonight. Rutgers also needs to avoid long jumpers, especially early in the shot clock.  They need to grind this game to a snails pace, and focus on getting to the rim. Getting Illinois in foul trouble should be a big focus, as they are almost as thin as Rutgers.  Shooting just 15-23 from the free throw line for just 65.2% in their first meeting helped cost Rutgers the game.  Illinois will have the same strategy in getting to the line. Whichever team is more effective in drawing fouls and hitting their free throws, will most likely win this game.

Defensive Focus & Effort

We know Rutgers is terrible at defending the three-point shot. If Rutgers continues to give too many open looks from the perimeter tonight, Illinois has the guards to make them pay for it. In addition, Rutgers is too soft in the paint on defense and needs to tighten up near the rim.  We are looking at you D.J. Foreman.  Jonathan Laurent also needs to give great effort in the paint on defense tonight and close up the lanes to prevent the Illini guards from driving. This team has had brief moments of displaying high intensity on the defense end, and did so for times against Illinois in the first game. However, they have never been able to sustain focus for significant periods of time in any game this season. Tonight would be great timing for their best defensive effort of the season. Illinois does not have a height advantage like most opponents they play, so tonight is really about defensive discipline and flat out effort. It's now or never for this team.

Is This Team Tired Of Moral Victories?

The players active for tonight's game need to be in serious gut check mode.  Their backs have been against the wall for a good portion of this season, but tonight they are without Sanders and are only seven deep.  Regardless, these guys need to be sick and tired of moral victories and put all the reasons they can't win aside. They need to play with pride and give maximum effort on both ends of the floor.  If they come out flat and unfocused, they will show they are mentally defeated and will have no chance to even keep the score respectable. However, if they can play for each other and stick together, avoid mental mistakes, and play hard throughout, they will have a chance against Illinois. They are not playing a big or deep team, and if they play well they could leave with a victory.  The real kind and not the moral kind, which we lead the conference in. Let's hope this team puts forth its most inspired effort of the season, and it leads to something more than pats on the back and Eddie praising their effort.