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Rutgers Bubbles Over Against Illinois, Losing 82-66

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The conference losing streak extended to 28 games as Rutgers went down in Champaign, Illinois.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

In college basketball, good coaching is like gold.  You can never have enough of it.  When you have it, doors open for your team. It propels them to the maximum ceiling their roster allows for. Less talented, less athletic teams gain superpowers and knock off programs at the top of the food chain. Anything seems possible. Because good coaching can neutralize top talent and inspire less talented teams to play above their heads for 40 minutes.

On the flip side, when you don't have good coaching, a broken down boat is just that, a broken down boat that eventually sinks. And that is Rutgers in a nutshell.  We know the frontcourt is missing three players due to injury.  We know our best player, Corey Sanders, is suspended for a four game stretch which started tonight. We know they are a young squad. It has been the case most of the season and this is not just about tonight.  The same coaching issues we had tonight have been there every game Sanders played as well.  At some point, Eddie Jordan needs to win a game against the opponent's head coach.  If your team's coach keeps getting outsmarted by the opposing coach, the same results will keep happening.

Tonight it was Illinois head coach John Groce that changed the game in a positive way for the opposition. After falling behind 13-4 at the first TV timeout, Rutgers battled back and Illinois led 18-16 at 11:02 left in the first half.  After the TV timeout, Groce had his team fall into a 2-3 zone on defense, while also pressing Rutgers after made baskets. Like clockwork, Rutgers completely fell apart.  Not just in their halfcourt offense, but they stopped playing defense as well.  They looked as if they saw a ghost and played scared the rest of the half.  What resulted is simply a rerun Rutgers fans have become all too familiar with this season.Illinois finished the half on 29-9 run and completely buried our boys in scarlet, leading 47-25 at the half.

Even TV color man Jon Crispin questioned why Eddie didn't call for the 2-3 zone on defense in the first half, when it was apparent sticking to man to man was going to get Rutgers in a hole they couldn't recover from. Foul trouble forced Mike Williams to the bench and Justin Goode proved to be a big drop as his replacement. Although Rutgers played hard in the second half, the game was too far out of reach for them to ever make Illinois nervous.

Another season long theme continued, as Illinois outscored Rutgers 8-5 at the start of the half, building their lead to 25 points at the first TV timeout. Credit the players for not giving up and cutting the lead down to 11 points with five plus minutes left in the game.  Eddie finally switched to the 2-3 zone and it slowed Illinois down, as they forced jump shots and went cold. The problem is Rutgers was buried in too big of a hole after the first half, and although they played well for an extended stretch, never got the lead into single digits. Ultimately, Illinois regained their poise and started attacking again, and won going away 82-66.

Illini star Malcolm Hill, who was limping in warm-ups with a gimpy hamstring, dominated the stat sheet, leading all scorers and notching a double-double. He scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, along with 3 assists and 2 steals. Center Maverick Morgan had 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 blocks.  Guard Kendrick Nunn added 16 points, including 4-8 from three-point range.

Illinois shot 9-22 from three-point range for 41%, happily taking advantage of the open looks from behind the arc.  This was not some coaching masterpiece by Groce, crafting cutting edge ways to get his shooters open.  Illinois is sixth in the conference in three-point shooting at 36% for the season.  Rutgers is a guard heavy roster that should be equipped to defend good shooting teams.  And yet, there was no added focus on the shooters, just like there wasn't against top shooting teams like Michigan and Michigan State. Rutgers continues to focus on collapsing in the paint and leaving open looks on the perimeter, and they pay for it on a nightly basis.

With all that being said, credit the Rutgers players for never giving up and fighting until the end.  Mike Williams, Bishop Daniels, D.J. Foreman, and Jonathan Laurent all played well for the most part on the offensive end.  It was the freshman wing Laurent who led the team in scoring and rebounding, finishing with a double-double of 18 points on 7-10 shooting from the floor and 11 rebounds.  It's fair to question why Laurent didn't get more opportunities with the basketball, as he scored a career high 23 points in the first game between these two teams. Williams tried to lead on offense but struggled with his shot, another season long theme.  He finished 5-15 from the field, but did hit on 3 of 8 attempts from long range. Williams finished with 15 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds.

It was Bishop Daniels that stepped up his game tonight and ran the offense better than he had all season.  Daniels scored 15 points on 6-13 from the field, along with a team high 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. Foreman came off the bench and notched a solid but unspectacular 11 points and 5 boards.

Tonight may have been a different set of circumstances, but the undoing of this team was much of the same.  Not defending the three, too many turnovers, failure to recognize and then execute against a zone defense, and zero adjustments from their head coach. Corey Sanders doesn't get a pass either, as whatever the actions were that led to his suspension, he failed a big step on his way to becoming a superstar and let his team down. Hopefully, he learns from this.  Rutgers is still winless on the road in their two seasons in the Big Ten and have lost 28 consecutive conference games.  They get another chance to end the streak Saturday afternoon at the RAC against Penn State. We can hope for different results, but the same mistakes keep happening every game.  The broken down boat has no captain to lead it ashore.

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