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From the Cheap Seats: 4 Thoughts On Illinois

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Rutgers dug deep and pulled out a big win.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Dear Pat Hobbs: With, I think 2:17 left in the game, the last TV timeout began. The fans expected the pep band to break out the RU fight song and to bite their nails as they waited for the game to resume. What they got was something I haven’t seen before. The PA announcer announced that the fans should look toward center court and welcome the AD. Pat Hobbs walked out with a microphone. I thought he was going to thank the crowd for coming out and for a great season. Which he did. But he also did so much more, he exhorted the crowd to get loud and cheer on the Scarlet Knights. To get to their feet and create the kind of atmosphere the RAC used to be known for. And the fans—from the Riot Squad down to the walk-up ticket buyer—complied. I’ve never seen this from an AD before—and it says just how much Hobbs cares about hoops and what he knows about basketball home courts. While Steve Pikiell will bear the brunt of the praise should the program get turned around, Hobbs should get credit too. Especially if the RAC becomes a house of torture for opponents again. Because Hobbs is working on that part now. His speech was just the beginning.

The Game Was a Classic: Rutgers fans will remember this one, though the annals probably won’t. But it was a the kind of game fans will talk about when they look back on the Pikiell era. Rutgers was gritty and gutty, rallying from a 2nd half 10 point deficit in the blink of an eye when it looked like they could just roll over. The improvement in certain players—Sanders dishing, Freeman’s three—was on display during the final play. Mike Williams’ heart was all over this game, pulling down rebound after rebound. CJ Gettys’ all over the place in the first half. And the tension. This team doesn’t win games easily. But they get nearly everything they can out of their somewhat limited roster. And the final play was both perfect and shocking. Maybe this is the game we look back on 4 years from now and say, “Yeah, it started there.”

The Kind of Game You Recruit Off Of: This wasn’t a signature win. Rutgers didn’t knock off a ranked team or beat someone they had no business beating. But this is an important win. They went toe to toe with a team that was rolling and getting all sorts of positive press this week. They won in the final ten seconds. They’re going to be on all the highlights tonight. So Pikiell and his staff should be—and I have no doubt are—calling their recruiting targets and saying, “Did you see that magic? Imagine what we can do if you’re here.” This is the game that shows the improvement. Look what Pikiell can point to this year: Double the total wins from last year. The first Big Ten road win. And, because of today, Pikiell’s squad won as many Big Ten games this season as Rutgers won the past two seasons combined. This was a successful season, and hey, you recruits? You can make things even better next year and beyond.

Steve Pikiell Can Flat Out Coach: The second half was a master class of knowing you team and reading the pulse. Illinois came out of the break ready to step on Rutgers’ throat. They went from down 3 to up 7 before the clock read 17:40. And then Pikiell started working. Corey Sanders’ shot wasn’t falling and Nigel Johnson had made some offensive errors. So, down ten, Pikiell subbed in Jake Dadika and Mike Williams, and the Scarlet Knights got back in it on consecutive 3s by Williams. Dadika isn’t flashy-he’s a walk-on-but he ran the offense wisely and looked for the open man. And the Dadika substitution sparked Corey—who took over the rest of the game. He even got quality first half minutes from senior walk-on Khalil Batie. From there Pikiell mixed and matched defenses, throwing Jim Groce’s Fighting Illini off with a 2-3 zone and then a 1-3-1 zone. And when he inserted Candido Sa, the defense totally changed inside the zone. I have to wonder if Groce even scouted for that, considering Pikiell plays mostly man-to-man. And, you know when you have a good coach? When, coming out of timeouts, the team gets good looks. And Rutgers nearly always does. Pikiell isn’t the best coach in the Big Ten—not in a league with Tom Izzo and John Beilein—but he’s a very good coach. And when the talent rolls in, I have no doubt he can go toe to toe with anyone.

For more on this game, we turn out fired up eyes to Aaron, who has you recap here and some great quotes here.

Looking for something to read while waiting for the Big Ten Tournament? Jackson Donne and Matt Herrick are back in Blind to Sin.