While there have been plenty of ups and downs in Steve Pikiell’s second season as head coach of Rutgers, tonight’s performance was the low point of this current campaign. Sure, losses to Stony Brook and Hartford were ugly and disappointing, but they were somewhat explainable during the holiday break and for a team learning to handle success for the first time after the Seton Hall win, which seems like a decade ago at this point. However, there is little explanation for Rutgers to lay such an egg in what was a true opportunity to break through on the road in Big Ten play. It was an embarrassing outing, as the Scarlet Knights looked lost on offense and lacked heart defensively, as Illinois, who entered this game in last place in the Big Ten, dominated them in every facet. The final score was 91-60.
Rutgers gave hope at the start and came out firing, as Geo Baker made two three-pointers in the opening two and half minutes. The second make gave the Scarlet Knights a 8-5 lead ahead of the first TV timeout of the game, but Illinois went on a 8-0 run soon after and the worst was yet to come. Rutgers fell into a a six-plus minute scoreless stretch.
Another issue was turnovers, as RU committed seven in the first eight minutes of the contest. However, the Illini also struggled offensively, as they missed five shot in a row from the field and were mired in their own three-plus minute scoreless stretch at this point. The defense of Rutgers forced them into seven early turnovers during this period as well. The score was stuck on 13-8 Illinois from the 14:42 to mark in the first half until Eugene Omoruyi made two free throws at the 10:59 mark.
Illinois continued to struggle and their scoreless stretch grew to almost five minutes as Deshawn Freeman made a pair from the line as well. However, the Illinois reasserted themselves on offense and three three-pointers from Trent Frazier spurred a 13-0 run, forcing a timeout from Steve Pikiell. Rutgers was trailing 26-12 with 7:32 remaining in the opening frame. They were without a made field goal in over nine minutes, having missed eight shots in a row. The drought was finally broken by none other than Matt Bullock, who made a jumper. However, after Corey Sanders stole it on the next trip, Bullock committed an offensive foul in transition. Frazier then drained two more three-pointers on back to back possessions and all of sudden Illinois was leading 32-14 with 5:54 to play in the first half. It was a 19-2 run for the Illini in a four-plus minute stretch.
Freeman scored a basket, but then committed an unforced turnover and then was involved in a skirmish, as he and Da’Monte Williams were assessed double technicals. After Souf Mensah made one of two free throws soon after, disaster struck. Mensah fouled Mark Alstork from behind the arc and he made the shot, giving him the opportunity for a four point play. At the same time, Omoruyi injured his leg after appearing to have dislocated his kneecap. He was helped off the floor and was unable to put pressure on his leg. Alstork converted the free throw, but the loss of Omoruyi for any period of time would be devastating.
Eugene Omoruyi goes down mid-play after a hit on his knee, and it does not look good. Steve Pikiell immediately on the scene to comfort his sophomore glue guy: pic.twitter.com/wQTqUzTziQ— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) January 31, 2018
The rest of the opening frame was ugly as well and Rutgers headed to the locker room trailing 41-22 in what was the worst half for this team in Big Ten play this season. The Scarlet Knights averaged 11 turnovers per game coming in, but they committed 13 in the first half alone. They shot 33% from the field and Illinois held a +6 edge on the boards. The most dispiriting thing to watch was the subpar defense of Rutgers, which had been their calling card during conference play. Illinois shot 50% from the floor and were 7 of 18 from three-point range. They did commit 12 turnovers, but held a 16-9 first half edge in points off of takeaways.
After trailing by 19 points at the half, Rutgers exhibited little fight thereafter, as Illinois opened the second frame on a 12-2 run and Pikiell called his final timeout of the game with 17:40 remaining. Illinois led 53-24 and it was clear Rutgers left their hearts in Piscataway. I’ll spare the details, but Illinois led by as many as 43 points and outscored Rutgers in the second half 50-38, winning the game by 31. The Scarlet Knights shot 42% from the field and committed a season worst 25 turnovers. The Illini held a 37-16 edge in points off of turnovers in this game.
Illinois entered this game dead last in conference play in three-point shooting, averaging just 26.9% from deep. Tonight, the Illini went 11 of 27 for 41%. In the previous three losses coming in, Rutgers averaged just 48 points. However, they held their opponents to just 60.7 points per contest, which was 14.3 points below their combined scoring averages. Tonight, Illinois scored 14 points over their season average, just the second Big Ten team to score over their average against Rutgers in league play, as Minnesota was the first in the conference opener. Rutgers was fifth in league play in defensive efficiency coming into this game, but certainly didn’t look like it tonight, as they allowed a season worst 91 points.
Illinois saw five players score in double figures, led by Kipper Nichols with 19 and Frazier finished with 17.
Geo Baker was the only Rutgers player who played somewhat well offensively, leading the team with 19 points on 5 of 11 shooting from the floor, including 3 of 6 from behind the arc and a perfect 6 of 6 from the free throw line. He did commit 3 turnovers and only dished out 1 assist. Late in the game, Matt Bullock hit some shots and he finished with a career high 8 points on 4 of 6 from the field.
It was a disappointing night for both Freeman and Sanders, who need to be better leaders for this team to be able to compete on the road. Freeman fouled out with over ten minutes left in the game and while he scored 10 points, he grabbed just 4 rebounds and committed 3 turnovers. Sanders was sloppy on both ends of the floor and failed to hustle back in transition on a play Illinois scored late in the first half. His scoreless performance and benching against Penn State yielded little progress in this game. He finished with 10 points on 3 of 12 shooting from the floor and just 4 of 8 from the charity stripe. He did grab 5 rebounds, but also committed 3 turnovers.
The worst part of this game is that such a terrible effort undermines the progress that Rutgers has made in Big Ten play this season. This score will resonate across the league as same old Rutgers and sadly, that’s what it felt like for most of this game. There is no doubt this team sorely misses it’s captain Mike Williams and it was obvious that the players were affected by the injury of Eugene Omoruyi. However, there is no excuse for the no show performance they delivered tonight. The entire coaching staff needs to regroup and figure out a way to pull things together quickly. Steve Pikiell needs to do a better job of having this team ready to play, as the past two road games have been disasters. More losses in this fashion will bleed out any hope that remains this season. The Scarlet Knights (12-12; 2-9) now sit in last place in the Big Ten. The good news is they do get another shot against Illinois in the season finale at the RAC in just over a month from now.
Next up, Rutgers hosts first place, #3 Purdue, who are undefeated in Big Ten play. The RAC will be sold out and it will certainly give the Scarlet Knights a great environment to give the Boilermakers their best shot. However, tonight’s performance and the injury status of now both Williams and Omoruyi breed little confidence that the result will be anything but close. Building this program from almost scratch has been a process for head coach Steve Pikiell and while progress has been made, this game will go down as a night to forget for sure.