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Rutgers Men’s Basketball Game #31 Preview vs. Illinois

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Includes how to watch, pregame thoughts from coach Pikiell, stats and keys to victory

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

How To Watch & Listen

Illinois (13-17; 3-14) At Rutgers (13-17; 3-14)

Where: The RAC (capacity 8,000) - Alternate traffic pattern listed here

Tip-off: Sunday, February 25th at 3:00 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Jason Horowitz and Robbie Hummel

Stream: BTN2GO

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM, WOR 710 AM, Sirius/XM 81 - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #146; Illinois #106

(Note: Rutgers regressed four spots since the 27 point loss at Ohio State)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 67 Illinois 66; Rutgers given a 52% chance to win

Vegas Line: Pick

Series History: Illinois leads the all-time series 5-1, including a 91-60 defeat on January 30th

SB Nation Illinois site: The Champaign Room

About Illinois

Since beating Rutgers in convincing fashion almost four weeks ago, Illinois has lost six of its last seven games and are coming off a difficult stretch in the past week. It actually started well,as they upset fourth place Nebraska at home last Sunday. However, they then had to face Michigan State and Purdue back to back in a three day period. The Illini lost by 20 points on the road to the Spartans and fell in a close game on senior night to the Boilermakers by 7.

One notable stat is that Illinois is 0-10 on the road this season (one was technically a neutral site loss to UNLV in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand, but I’m counting it.)

In terms of conference rankings, Illinois is 9th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency. Head coach Brad Underwood likes to play a fast pace and Illinois currently has the third fastest tempo on offense in league games. He utilizes a rotation of nine players, all of whom average between 17 to 26 minutes per game. The Illini are scoring an average of 75 points per game, but are not a strong shooting team. Their season averages are 43.7% from the field, 32.6% from three-point range, and 73.0% from the free throw line. Their effective field goal percentage in Big Ten play is just 11th in the league.

On defense, while the Illini are just 12th in defensive efficiency in conference play, they are tops in the Big Ten in defensive turnover rate and steal percentage. Other than forcing turnovers, Illinois has struggled defensively and are worst in the league in opponents effective field goal percentage, two-point shooting percentage, free throw rate, and block rate. They are also just 13th in opponent’s offensive rebounding rate against them.

Here are per game statistical averages for key players on Illinois (all nine average 17 or more minutes per game):

6’7” junior forward Leron Black - 15.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists

6’1” freshman guard Trent Frazier - 12.6 points, 3.0 assists, 1.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals

6’6” sophomore forward Kipper Nichols - 9.4 points, 4.3 rebounds

6’10” junior forward Michael Finke - 9.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists

6’5” junior guard Aaron Jordan - 7.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.9 steals

6’5” senior guard Mark Alstork - 6.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists

6’4” freshman guard Mark Smith - 5.8 points, 1.4 assists, 1.4 rebounds

6’1” sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas - 5.4 points, 3.0 assists, 2.1 rebounds, 1.0 steals

6’3” freshman guard De’Monte Williams - 3.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists

Know Your Three-Point Shooters:

Leron Black - 20 of 39 for 51.3%

Aaron Jordan - 40 of 89 for 44.9%

Kipper Nichols - 26 of 72 for 36.1%

Trent Frazier - 55 of 161 for 34.2%

Michael Finke - 26 of 88 for 29.5%

Rutgers Notes:

Four seniors will be honored before this game, the last of the regular season: Mike Williams, Deshawn Freeman, Candido Sa, and Jake Dadika..... In Big Ten play this season, Rutgers is currently ranked 14th in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency......For Division I basketball, their offensive efficiency is ranked 309th out of 351 teams and the defense is ranked 18th, per KenPom.....Rutgers has had the most difficult strength of schedule in Big Ten play through seventeen games....With a victory, the Scarlet Knights can clinch a finish better than last place for the first time in four seasons since joining the Big Ten.

Coach Pikiell Discusses Senior Day & Illinois

video courtesy of our own Brian Fonseca

Keys To Victory

Toughness

When asked in the presser above what he is looking for most out of his team in this game, without hesitation, Pikiell stated “toughness”. Rutgers has been through a lot this season, including injuries to key players, a brutal stretch over the holidays when they lost to Stony Brook and Hartford, enduring a very difficult five game stretch to begin conference play, and a seven game losing streak in Big Ten action. They also ended up playing the top four teams in the Big Ten standings twice apiece in Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, and Nebraska, losing all eight of those games. All of that is behind this team now and Rutgers has a legitimate chance to string together a two game winning streak the same way they were able to at the end of last season. It all starts in this rematch against Illinois, after the Scarlet Knights played their worst game in conference play in the first meeting. Rutgers needs to come out playing with an edge and look to set the tone with its defense and dominate on the boards. Illinois is not a good road team and not allowing them to have a good start is key in the outcome of this game.

Win Turnover Margin

In the first meeting, while Rutgers forced Illinois into 17 turnovers, they also committed a season worst 25 of their own. It was a game in which seven Scarlet Knights committed at least 3 turnovers apiece. Obviously, you can’t win games making that many mistakes and it was a big reason they played so poorly. For the season, Rutgers has been much improved in this area and that gives hope they will do better in the rematch at the RAC. Having Geo Baker back, who missed Tuesday’s game against Ohio State with the flu, will help. Rutgers needs to play smart with the ball in their hands and not force things against the pack line defense of Illinois. On the other end of the court, Illinois is turnover prone and Rutgers needs to be aggressive in forcing them into mistakes. It will help limit the Illini’s scoring opportunities in the halfcourt, as well as get Rutgers going offensively, which leads me to my next point.

Generate Offense Through Defense

The pack line defense has caused Rutgers fits this season against multiple opponents that have played it. Dave White explained it in detail here, but essentially, opponents play a sagging defense off of the perimeter in order to prevent gaps for players on the wing to drive to the rim. It’s been kryptonite for a Rutgers offense that is the worst shooting high major team in college basketball. There is no magical cure to solve it in this game, but like it’s been all season, this team plays its best when they generate offense through its defense. The more Rutgers can force turnovers and get out in transition, the better. Scoring off of turnovers and off the break is a major key for them to beat Illinois. A seconday key, as always, is generating second chance points off of offensive rebounds, but the less Rutgers has to run its halfcourt offense and run instead, the more efficient they could be in this game. Getting to the free throw line would help as well.

Play Together

This point is applicable in every aspect of this game. Through all that this team has been through this season, this contest is an opportunity to come together on senior day in front of the home faithful for the last time this year and deliver a complete performance. When they have played as one unit on the court against top competition this season, which has produced close losses against Purdue, Michigan State, Florida State, they’ve overachieved. It was also a key in victories over Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern. They need good ball movement when they are on offense in the halfcourt and make Illinois rotate throughout the game. Rutgers need to play selflessly on offense and avoid the hero ball mentality that has plagued them this season at times. Dribbling it to death and settling for long jumpers is exactly what Illinois wants them to do. They need multiple passes per possession and look to find the open player. On defense, they need to stick with their assignments and make it hard on Illinois to generate easy baskets by playing suffocating, halfcourt defense. Rutgers has played this way before, but mysteriously have struggled to do so as frequently against less heralded teams. If they can produce a complete effort by playing for one another on Sunday, they can win this game.

In The Bonus

It’s been a frustrating season with several ups and downs, but Rutgers has plenty to play for in this game. They can redeem themselves after an embarrassing performance against Illinois last month. This team can send their seniors out on a high note in their last game ever at the RAC. Rutgers can climb the standings with a victory and can end up as high as 12th place in the Big Ten, which would be significant for a program unanimously picked last and would result a program best finish. Four regular season Big Ten wins would also be a program best. It could also set up the best matchup possible for them next week in the Big Ten Tournament, a rematch against Iowa, a team they beat handily earlier this season. The home crowd is expected to be at near full capacity on Sunday afternoon, so it should be an environment this team can thrive off of. This is a very important contest for Rutgers, who have a great opportunity to end the season on a high note and gain momentum ahead of the conference tourney at Madison Square Garden, which begins on Wednesday. Can they seize the moment? The character of this team will determine that.

For my tribute to Mike Williams, click here.

For Brian Fonseca’s piece on all four seniors ahead their last game at the RAC, click here.

For Brian’s own thoughts on this being the last game he covers as a student at the RAC, click here.