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Rutgers Basketball Game Preview 31: Illinois

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Can the Scarlet Knights finish the regular season on a high note at home?

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

Illinois (18-12; 8-9) At Rutgers (13-17; 2-15)

Where: The RAC

Tip-off: Saturday, March 4th at 12:00 p.m. ET

TV: ESPNU - Clay Matvick and Sean Harrington

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #136; Illinois #66

KenPom Prediction: Illinois 65 Rutgers 63; Rutgers is given a 41% chance of winning.

Series History: Illinois leads 4-0 all-time in the series, including a 110-101 win in triple overtime at the RAC last season.

About Illinois

Three weeks ago, the Illini sat alone in 13th place at 4-9 in conference play and calls for head coach John Groce’s job were picking up steam. Ever since, Illinois has been red hot, winners of four straight, and now have an outside chance at making the NCAA Tournament. They beat Michigan State on senior night in their last home game of the season on Wednesday night. Illinois has swept Northwestern, but lost both games to Penn State. They are a solid defensive team and are 3rd in the conference in limiting their opponents on the offensive glass. However, they are last in block percentage. Illinois is average on offense and their strength is not turning the ball over. They are certainly on a roll, but are also beatable. Here are some players of note:

Malcolm Hill - The senior star is averaging an impressive line of 17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.1 steals per game, making him the only player from a high major conference to lead his team in all four categories. Illinois as a team is just 13th in getting to the free throw line in conference play, but he gets to the line often with 177 attempts and he averages 79%. Last season in two games against Rutgers, Hill averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists.

Maverick Morgan - The 6’10” senior center is the only other player to average double figures in scoring at 10.2 points per game. He only averages 4.4 boards per game, but is shooting 56% from the floor.

Leron Black - The 6’7” sophomore leads the Illini in rebounding with 6.1 boards per game and is third in scoring with 8.5 points per game.

Jalen Coleman-Lands - The sophomore guard averages 8.0 points per game and has attempted the most shots from behind the arc on the team, making 37% from three-point range.

Tracy Abrams - The senior guard also scores 8.0 points per game and leads the team with shooting 42% from three-point range

Michael Finke - The 6’10” big man can shoot from deep, as he averages 41% from three-point range and is productive in posting 6.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in just under 20 minutes per game.

Keys To The Game

Show Some Passion

The second half of the Maryland game was disheartening for the simple fact that Rutgers looked flat and uninspired. Perhaps the losing streak caught up to them, but their effort was lackluster, to say the least and resulted in their worst defensive efficiency rating of the season. Of course, the last time they played that poorly was also a 20 point loss at home back in January to Iowa. They responded with their first road win in program history over Penn State. Can they bounce back in similar fashion against Illinois? Rutgers needs to come out with a big effort and that starts on the boards. Even though the Scarlet Knights lead the Big Ten in rebounding, they’ve been dominated in their past few games. However, Illinois has out-rebounded their opponents just once during their four game winning streak, so there is hope tomorrow. If Rutgers comes out early crashing the glass, it will signal they are ready to play. This team has been fun to root for because they have often left everything they have on the floor and this game is a chance to make a lasting impression by doing that once more.

Attack The Rim

In addition, Rutgers needs to make it a priority to drive to the basket as often as possible. They need to stop forcing some shots from deep, as they are just 15 of 50 for 30% the past three games. While there have been several drives the past few games that a Rutgers player was fouled but no called ensued, they can’t let that change their approach. Force the action and contact early against a team that is not imposing near the rim, as they are last in the Big Ten in blocked shots. Deshawn Freeman needs to impose his will in the paint, as he could have a big game against this Illinois front line.

Defend The Three

A big reason Illinois has been successful recently is they have shot 39 of 95 for 41% from three-point range during their four game winning steak, 6% higher than their season average in B1G play. They’ve been particularly scorching hot from the perimeter in their past two games, making 24 of 52 from behind the arc for 46%. Rutgers is second in the Big Ten in holding opponents to just 32% from three-point range and they need to prevent open looks. The first ten minutes of this game is crucial, as Rutgers has fallen behind early against both Michigan and Maryland due to them starting hot from deep. If they can consistently contest long range shots for Illinois, they could frustrate them and make this a battle.

First Team To 65 Likely To Win

That leads me to the fact that this game is between the two lowest scoring teams in the Big Ten. Illinois is averaging just over 67 points per Big Ten game, while Rutgers is just over 60 points. The real scoring barrier for Rutgers has been 65 points, as both wins in conference play they matched or exceeded that point total. If Rutgers plays defense the way they are capable of, they could hold Illinois below that mark and it would give them a real chance for victory.

In The Bonus

This is the last opportunity for this team to give the RAC faithful a reason to celebrate and it would be a great way to end the home schedule. While progress has been made this season, it would greatly help the narrative perception wise to finish with a win over a team that hasn’t lost in three weeks. The program has never won 3 regular season Big Ten games, so accomplishing that would be a significant step forward. With Pikiell and the staff working hard on the recruiting trail, being able to point to doubling their overall wins and having more conference victories than ever before would be a major selling point. The importance of this game is huge.

In addition, the efforts of senior walk-on Khalil Batie and grad transfer CJ Gettys should be celebrated. There is no better way than to send them off with a big win and have the home crowd leave in a tizzy. The entire team has worked hard and shown growth overall this season, but this game is about seizing the moment. School is almost out and this is a final exam they need to ace.