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Rutgers men’s basketball game preview at Illinois

How to watch, stats, & keys to victory as the Scarlet Knights look for its seventh win in a row.

Illinois v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Rutgers (12-3; 3-1) at Illinois (11-5; 3-2)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: State Farm Center (15,500) in Champaign, Illinois

Tip-off: Saturday, January 11th at 12:00 p.m. ET.

TV: BTN - Jeff Levering and Jess Settles

Stream: Fox Sports App

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network (WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 385; Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan);; WRSU 88.7 FM (Jake Ostrove and Brad Loprinzi)

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers 34th; Illinois 29th; Rutgers has moved up 9 spots since the win over Penn State. Illinois moved up 2 spots after Wednesday’s win over Wisconsin.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 104.9 (84th) Defense 88.7 (19th); Illinois - Offense 108.4 (35th) Defense 91.3 (40th)

KenPom Prediction: Illinois 68 Rutgers 64. Rutgers given a 35% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Illinois -5.5

Series History: Illinois leads the all-time series 7-1, including last season’s 99-94 victory in Champaign on February 9th, 2019.

SB Nation’s Illinois Site: The Champaign Room

OTB Podcast with Jerry Recco

Key Contributors

Illinois - 6’5” sophomore Ayo Donunmu (15.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists); 7’0” freshman Kofi Cockburn (15.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 56.3% FG); 6’2” senior Andres Feliz (10.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists); 6’5” sophomore Alan Griffin (9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 40.7% 3-pt FG); 6’2” junior Trent Frazier (9.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals); Giorgi Bezhanishvili (8.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists); 6’6” senior Kipper Nichols (3.8 points, 1.6 rebounds); 6’3” junior Da’Monte Williams (2.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists)

Rutgers - 6’6” sophomore Ron Harper Jr. (11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals); 6’4” junior Geo Baker (11.4 points, 4.0 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals); 6’10” sophomore Myles Johnson (9.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 71.8% FG); 6’6” senior Akwasi Yeboah (9.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 41.0% 3-pt FG); 6’2” junior Jacob Young (8.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists); 6’7” sophomore Caleb McConnell (7.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 42.3% 3-pt FG); 6’4” sophomore Montez Mathis (6.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals); 6’6” freshman Paul Mulcahy (4.0 points, 2.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 59.5% FG); 6’9” senior Shaq Carter (3.9 points, 2.4 rebounds, 57.5% FG)

Illinois Scouting Report

Head coach Brad Underwood is in his third season at Illinois and in the past week they have beaten Purdue at home, holding them to just 37 points, and Wisconsin on the road. The Illini previously beat Michigan at home this season, where they are 9-1 with the lone loss a 2 point defeat to Miami (FLA) during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Illinois also lost by 1 at Maryland in the Big Ten opener in December.

Illinois is a balanced team, but they’ve been more dominant on the defensive end in conference play so far. Underwood mentioned in his radio show this week that they’ve changed the way they play defensively this season. With two big men that protect the rim in Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Illinois no longer exclusively employs a true pack line style, which is a sagging defense that clogs the lane and puts pressure on the ball handler. Underwood explained they ended up fouling more than any other team in Big Ten play last season and studying analytics led to the conclusion a change was needed. The result has been impressive, as Illinois is allowing only 60.8 points per game in Big Ten play and have the 3rd best defensive efficiency rating in the conference. In addition, they’ve made 45 more free throws than opponents have even attempted this season, which is incredible.

Offensively, they average 77.3 points per game overall this season, but only 63.8 points in Big Ten play. The Illini are shooting 47.1% from the floor, 30.8% from three-point range and 71.1% from the free throw line this season, but have just the 12th best offensive efficiency rating in Big Ten play through five games. Tempo wise the Illini are a much slower team than previously, as they played at the fastest pace in the conference last season, but are just 12th this season so far.

Overall, Illinois is a big, physical team that will have the two most talented players on the court in this game with Cockburn, one of the best freshman in the nation, and Naismith candidate Ayo Donunmu, who is extremely versatile. Alan Griffin might be the best sixth man in the league. Trent Frazier is a difficult matchup and given Rutgers fits in the past. The Illini are an excellent rebounding team and rank third nationally in rebounding margin (+10.8). They want to play a rough and tumble game, so get ready for a war inside.

Injury Report

Rutgers captain Geo Baker is out indefinitely with a broken left thumb.

Notes: As a team, Rutgers is shooting 47.2% from the floor, 29.3% from three-point range, and 65.5% from the free throw line......The Scarlet Knights are 7th nationally in rebounding margin (+10.1), 10th in rebounds per game (41.6), 16th in scoring defense (59.6), 17th in field goal percentage defense (37.4%), 24th in scoring margin (+13.9), and 27th in blocks per game (5.2)....Rutgers is undefeated this season at the RAC (11-0), as well as when shooting better than opponents (10-0) and limiting opponents to under 60 points per game (8-0).....The Scarlet Knights have outrebounded its opponents in every game but one this season......RU has an RPI ranking of 16th and 21st in the NET rankings that are used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to determine the field of 68 at the end of the season....Rutgers is currently 6th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency.

Keys To Victory

Battle of the Big’s

This game will likely be won in the interior as Illini big men Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili will face off against Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter. Whichever side gets into foul trouble first will be at a disadvantage. In their win over Wisconsin on Wednesday, Illinois flirted with disaster as both big men were playing with four fouls at the end. They’ll certainly be a focus offensively early on in order to draw in Johnson and get him on the bench. Carter has quietly been a steady presence off the bench of late and will need to make a positive impact in this game regardless of if Johnson gets in foul trouble or not. The two duo’s will be a factor on which team controls the boards as well. Last season, Giorgi torched Rutgers for 35 points on 14 of 18 shooting, so they can’t let that happen again either.

Avoid Being Stagnant on Offense

Rutgers fell behind by 10 points to Penn State in large part because they lacked ball movement and tried to take defenders off the dribble one on one. It resulted in contested looks at the basket that produced a 1 of 15 start shooting wise to start the game. It also led to 7 turnovers in the first 7 minutes of action. That cannot happen in this game on the road. As soon as Rutgers settled down and started moving without the ball and sharing the basketball in the halfcourt, better scoring chances opened up. Paul Mulcahy had a big hand in that change, as his passing ability, as well as vision and consistently playing under control have made him a huge asset. Last season, Caleb McConnell was fantastic in beating the defensive pressure of Illinois and getting penetration to shoot or pass near the rim. Both, as well as Jacob Young, need to play smart basketball and make sure the halfcourt offense doesn’t get stagnant, as well as look to run in transition when opportunities present themselves. Avoiding turnovers is also so important. Illinois is just 12th in defensive turnover rate and last in steal rate in conference play, so Rutgers need to avoid beating themselves with mistakes.

No Easy Baskets

Illinois has struggled shooting wise in conference play and Rutgers needs to make sure every shot they take is contested. They are 8th from two-point range, but dead last in three-point percentage (23.9%) and just 13th from the free throw line. Defense has been outstanding of late for Rutgers and they need to continue to pressure without fouling. They were excellent at this in the Penn State game, not extending their arms too much and avoiding contact, while still not allowing the visitors much room to operate offensively. Preventing penetration from the wings and forcing Illinois to take jump shots is key, as well as limiting fast break points.

Second chance points

I really feel like this is the biggest key to the game. Rutgers and Illinois are two of the best shooting teams in the country from two-point range this season overall, although Rutgers has had more success in Big Ten play (51.1%). However, both teams have been very good defensively as well, so neither will have an easy time making shots near the rim. However, both teams have been excellent on the offensive glass, with Illinois having the 4th best offensive rebounding rate in the nation (38.4%), while RU is 27th (35.0%). Whichever team can be more opportunistic and capitalize on second chance scoring opportunities could end up being the difference in the game. Rutgers has squandered points near the rim at times, which they did to a degree against Penn State, and need to finish as much as possible in this one.

Next Man Up, Part III

McConnell and Young both had big games with Baker out last Friday at Nebraska. It was Harper Jr. and Young on Tuesday in the win over Penn State. Who will it be on Saturday? Seven different players have led Rutgers in scoring this season, which is incredible and makes them a difficult opponent to prepare for. Obviously Rutgers needs contributions from every player that steps on the court in this game, but Mulcahy is a major key. He has dished out 18 assists and committed only 2 turnovers in his last four games. In the win over Penn State, he played the second most of anyone with 31 minutes and had 5 assists, 0 turnovers, while adding 4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and a block. His size and vision allow him to pass over the defense and if Illinois does switch to zone at times, he has the IQ and ability to find the holes in it. His quiet emergence has been a major reason Rutgers is riding a six game winning streak into this matchup and his effectiveness in leading the offense will be huge on Saturday. Hand the rookie the keys to the offense and let Young play off the ball, which makes him harder to defend.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the sixteenth game of the season, I’m featuring Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Yes, I know it’s a road game, but the lyric “Home is wherever I’m with you” made me think this song is perfect for this matchup. It’s not a game Rutgers is expected to win, especially without Baker, but this team hasn’t let that stop them this season. As Aristotle said, this team’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They are playing so well together and their ability to wear teams down with their depth, defense, and rebounding has been impressive. The RAC has been a huge advantage for sure, but after dominating Nebraska last week on the road, this team should have confidence they can win anywhere. If they can adopt the philosophy that home is wherever they are on the court together, we could see another road win on Saturday.