Rutgers (11-11; 4-8) At Illinois (8-15; 4-8)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: The State Farm Center (capacity 15,500) in Champaign, Illinois
Tip-off: Saturday, February 9th at 4:00 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Corey Provus & Stephen Bardo
Radio: Live Listen - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 390 - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM - Stephen Nelson & Troy DeSavino
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #94; Illinois #69
(Rutgers has moved back 2 spots since the 12 point loss to Michigan)
KenPom Prediction: Illinois 73 Rutgers 67; Rutgers has an 31% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Illinois -6
Series History: Illinois leads all-time 6-1, including wins in both meetings last season.
SB Nation Illinois site: The Champaign Room
Head coach Brad Underwood is in his second season for the Illini, who have played the second most difficult schedule in the nation per KenPom. Don’t be fooled by the 8-15 record, as the Illini are as dangerous as any Big Ten team right now. They’ve now won three of its last four, including over ranked teams Maryland and in its last game against Michigan State on Tuesday. They play a frenetic pace on both ends of the floor and play at the fastest tempo of any team in the Big Ten.
Illinois dictates play through their pack line defense, which our own Dave White covered in great detail here last season. The key principal of the pack line defense is constant on the ball pressure in combination with the other four players off the ball sagging into the paint. It’s meant to speed up the ball handler and force mistakes, while eliminating driving lanes to the basket and forcing teams to settle for jump shots. It was a major problem for Rutgers last season, as they lost to Illinois twice by a combined 44 points. We’ll discuss how to attack it in a moment.
The pack line defense of Illinois has them leading the Big Ten in defensive turnover rate (22.1%) and they are fourth in the nation overall (23.2%). The are also tops in steal rate (11.8%) in the Big Ten. Overall in league play their defensive efficiency is 11th, as they rank in the bottom half of every other defensive category.
Offensively, Illinois is ninth in efficiency in Big Ten play and for the season are shooting 43.2% from the floor, 34.5% from three-point range and 68.8% from the free throw line. They don’t currently rank in the top half of the conference in any offensive categories other than tempo and offensive rebounding rate (30.0%, 6th). However, they only have one senior in the rotation and are developing well, averaging 76 points in the past four games.
6’1” sophomore Trent Frazier - 14.6 points, 2.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 1.7 steals
6’5” freshman Ayo Dosunmu - 14.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists. 1.5 steals
6’5” senior Aaron Jordan - 8.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steal
6’2” junior Andres Feliz - 7.3 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals
6’7” freshman Tevian Jones - 4.1 points, 1.5 rebounds
6’3” sophomore Da’Monte Williams - 3.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists
6’9” freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili - 11.2 points, 4.9 rebounds
6’6” junior Kipper Nichols - 6.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists
Mamadou Doucoure remains out indefinitely with a back issue.
Notes: Rutgers is averaging 66.8 points per game and is shooting 40.7% from the floor, 31.9% from three-point range, and 63.5% from the free throw line.
Pikiell Pregame Thoughts
“Illinois plays a unique style, very different then anyone else in this league. We’ll have to really take care of the basketball against them. And we did a great job of that the other night with just nine turnovers against Michigan. Illinois is playing really good basketball. They beat a ranked Maryland team and then a big win over Michigan State. They’re playing with great energy and they are really in a groove right now. They are playing good basketball at the right time, so they pose many challenges for us, especially going out there to play them on their home court. That’s a tough place to play.”
On Illinois Beating Michigan State
“Those scores don’t surprise me at all in this league. Everyone has talent, everyone is well coached. Every night is just so different. We go from Michigan and they way they play to the way Illinois lays, you can’t get more drastic difference in a three day time frame. It’s a great league. That’s what makes this league so exciting. You’re playing ranked teams every other night just about. You’re going into touch place to play. You’ve got a lot of teams that are capable of beating anyone on any given night. I don’t care what your preseason pick was or whatever people think about you. You can beat the number one team any given night or lose to anybody. It poses a lot of challenges. That’s the excitement and great part of being in this league too. I tell recruits all the time, the league is a gauntlet of obstacles.”
Keys To Victory
Free Throw Rate & Make Them Count
Illinois is last in Big Ten play in opponent’s free throw rate which is due in part to their aggressive defensive style. Their last five games opponents have averaged over 23 free throw attempts per contest. Rutgers has the 7th best offensive free throw rate in the league and had gotten to the line over 20 times four games in a row before averaging 16.5 the past two contests. Still, since the game plan has been focused on attacking the rim the past month or so, Rutgers has done a good job of getting to the line on a pretty regular basis. They are still inconsistent in converting from the charity stripe, but they did shoot 75% (12-16) in Tuesday’s loss to Michigan. If they can draw fouls early in both halves and get into the bonus in both frames, their ability to knock down one and one’s, as well as shoot 70% or better from the line could be the difference between winning and losing this game.
All Hands On Deck
Steve Pikiell has utilized a ten man rotation on a consistent basis this season and Saturday he will need contributions from everyone. The Rutgers bench has been giving solid production throughout Big Ten play. Two players that will come in off the bench that I think are very important in this game are Caleb McConnell and Myles Johnson.
McConnell has the length and ball skills to handle Illinois’ halfcourt pressure, as well as help Geo Baker shoulder some of the load running the offense in a game that the home team wants to play at a fast pace.
Johnson is the best passer on the team and has the size to be a great target in the paint who can distribute the rock and find the open man. The guard who feeds Johnson at the top of the key has the potential to cut to the basket and beat their defender, as they will be applying on the ball pressure right before the pass based on pack line defensive principles.
Also look for Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. looking to attack the baseline by moving without the ball and trying to get open, which is an area that the pack line defense is susceptible to if gaps aren’t properly covered. Eugene Omoruyi is always important and has the ability to do damage in the low post in this game as well.
Rutgers really needs to be disciplined offensively and patient. They need to resist take jump shots out of the flow of the offense. Expect Pikiell to be subbing frequently, which is usually par for the course anyway. Here is what he said about the importance of depth for this game:
“They play at a crazy pace, so we’re going to be subbing in this game just because of fatigue. They really get you. I think our bench is as good as anybody’s and I think that helps us win some games. It also helps you when you have injuries and you’ve got illnesses and all the things we’ve faced during the year. I’ve got a lot of faith in our guys and we also put a huge premium in playing great on the defensive end of the floor and that’s tiring too. Maybe it’s a game certain guys don’t play as much as they would in a regular game just because of the way the team is going to play you with certain matchup’s. When you have a deep bench, it certainly helps you. It gives me a tool as a coach strategically to be able to play certain guys.”
Michigan State turned it over 17 times in the first half and 24 total in the loss to Illinois on Tuesday. Rutgers has been up and down in this area, but cannot afford a string of turnovers at any point in this game. If they do it will likely lead to a significant run from Illinois that may be unrecoverable on the road. Guard play from Baker and McConnell is hugely important, but the entire team needs to avoid forcing passes inside or across the court, as well as in transition. Pikiell emphasized how important taking care of the basketball is in this game:
“It’s organized chaos they try to get you to play in. You have to play real poised. Your ball handlers and your big guys too, they have to be patient. You can’t get caught up in it. As you see, teams turn the ball over early a great deal against them, so you’ve really got to take care of the basketball and that’s something we really haven’t been great at. We did a great job the other night against Michigan with 9 turnovers, but we haven’t been great with turning over the ball (overall). I think that’s a product of a lot of things. Newcomers don’t value every possession and we certainly have a lot of those young guys. You have to value every possession in a league like this and we haven’t been great, but then we’ve been great for halves, we’ve been in some games. This is of more importance to take care of the ball against Illinois because they lead the league in steals and that’s what they do, what they want to create.”
Rutgers has a +38 rebounding margin in its past five games and haven’t lost a battle on the boards since the 35 point loss at Purdue in a game Eugene Omoruyi didn’t play. They need to continue to crash the boards on every shot. Against Illinois, taking advantage of second chance scoring opportunities and drawing fouls are hugely important to Rutgers being able to score enough to win this game. Limiting Illinois to one shot per possession as much as possible is key as well. Rutgers has a significant size advantage up front but positioning will be important on both ends of the floor.
Rebounding rolls right into the last key. There are plenty of things that Rutgers is not, but one thing they most definitely are is tough. Their willingness to keep battling against Michigan and make it a game in the second half is a testament to that. They’ll need even more toughness down the stretch this season, as five of its last eight regular season games are on the road. I asked Pikiell on Thursday’s conference call about the importance of this team’s toughness as they head back out on the road. Here is what he said:
“It’s a grind of a season, a huge stretch. That’s another reason for depth too. It’s very important. You’ve got to go on the road and this is the toughest league to get a road win in. All these places are sold out that you’re going to play in, so you’ve got to certainly pack toughness and bring your defense. Hopefully we’ll continue to grow on the road. It’s important to win some road games and toughness is a huge part of that. Hopefully we’re developing our program to be tough like that and grow in that area.”
Pearl Jam Music Selection
Last month I began a new feature incorporating an appropriate Pearl Jam song to the current state of the team in each game preview. I decided to vary selections more so in order to have a more diverse catalog to choose from. For the Illinois game, I chose the Beatles song Helter Skelter. The Illini will want the pace of this game to be exactly that and Rutgers will have to navigate through it in order to be successful. I went with a live cover from U2, as it was impossible to find live concert footage of the Beatles and I love this version of the song anyway. Enjoy!