No. 13 Illinois (5-2) At No. 19 Rutgers (5-0)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: The RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey
Tip-off: Sunday, December 20 at 1 p.m. ET.
TV: ESPN2 - Jason Benetti & Dan Dakich
Stream: ESPN APP
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 18th, which is ten spots higher since a 14 point win over Maryland; Illinois is 10th, which is seven spots higher than a 27 point win over Minnesota.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 108.4 (44th) Defense 88.0 (11th); Illinois - Offense 112.3 (10th) Defense 90.1 (21st)
KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 73 Illinois 72; Rutgers is given a 54% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Rutgers -2
Series History: Illinois leads all-time 8-2 but Rutgers won the last meeting 72-57 at the RAC on February 15, 2020.
Illinois SB Nation Site: The Champaign Room
Illinois - 6’5” Ayo Dosunmu (22.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 51.3% FG, 37.5% 3-pt FG); 7’0” Kofi Cockburn (16.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 68.3% FG); 6’3” Adam Miller (11.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 39.5% 3-pt FG); 6’1” Andre Curbelo (10.7 points, 3.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 61.7% FG, 37.5% 3-pt FG); 6’2” Trent Frazier (8.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 48.3% 3-pt FG); 6’9” Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6.4 pointS, 3.7 rebounds, 58.8 FG); 6’3” Da’Monte Williams (6.1 Points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 60.0% FG, 62.5% 3-pt FG)
Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (23.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 60.0% FG, 50.0% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (15.0 points, 6.0 assists, 3.0 steals, 2.8 rebounds, 41.7% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (13.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 1.4 assists, 66.7% FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (7.0 points, 2.0 assists, 2.0 rebounds, 42.9% 3-pt FG); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (6.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 72.2% FG); 6’6” sophmore Paul Mulcahy (5.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 50.0% FG); 6’7” Mawot Mag (3.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 50.0% FG)
Brad Underwood had a breakthrough third season with the Illini, leading them to 21 wins and fourth place finish in the Big Ten last year. All of the key players have returned to a team that is led by junior Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore Kofi Cockburn, two of the best players in all of college basketball. They are complimented by a veteran core that includes Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. However, the Illini have been boosted by two impact freshmen as well with Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo both scoring at a high clip in the early going.
Illinois doesn’t have any weaknesses and is knocking on the door to become one the top six to eight elite teams in the country this season. They are dominant on the offensive end with so many weapons. They’re scoring 88.3 points per game and are shooting 53.7% from the floor and 43.2% from three-point range as a team through seven games. Defensively, they play suffocating defense at times and don’t allow many looks near the rim. Opponents are shooting under 45% from the field and under 28% from behind the arc.
The Illini are battle tested already, as their last four opponents have been ranked 55th or better in KenPom, which include a loss to no. 2 Baylor and win over no. 12 Duke. Their other loss was in a rivalry game to Missouri, while they opened Big Ten play with a 27 point rout of Minnesota. This is an extremely balanced team that can speed up the game and force opponents into multiple mistakes in very short period of time that can be the difference in the game.
Steve Pikiell Quotes
On the challenge of facing Illinois
“They’re good. They remind me of the Purdue teams that have big guys up front with guys around them that can create space and shoot the basketball. Frazier and Williams are shooting the ball well. Miller is a freshman who can do a lot of things scoring wise. They have a lot of good players and that’s why they are ranked where they are. They all rebound too. Not a lot of weaknesses on this Illinois team. You have to play well, smart. This isn’t a game where just one thing is going to be good enough. You have to do five things well. That’s why they are considered one of the best teams in the country.”
Geo’s response after his first game back
“He came back from the game, he got treatment. He says he is feeling good. Hopefully, he is. We have to start getting the pop back in his legs so he starts jumping the way he is used to. I think he is headed on a good path.”
On playing Myles Johnson & Cliff Omoruyi together
“I just really like that I have that available. I can change up lineups, I can do different things. I never had two 7-footers to play together. Illinois draws a ton of fouls, so we have to stay out of foul trouble. You could have that option more if both guys stay out of foul trouble. I like it, they both play hard. They are really good, they are unique. Playing those two guys, our two best rebounders, could help us negate that huge advantage they have been having against everybody.”
The maturity of Rutgers
“It’s the first time we have a lot of veteran guys and even our younger players have logged a lot of minutes, which is a good thing for us. Our versatility is really great this year. I love that we can move guys around. They all know multiple positions. Players like Geo and Ron that have been here a long time while we’ve tried to take steps to be one of the really good programs in the Big Ten, they really understand the struggles and embrace the opportunities in front of us. They also know how hard this league is. Nice to have veterans, need to keep them healthy and on the court. We have to have different game plans for every game and they’re able to make those adjustments week to week. Hopefully that will be a good advantage for us moving forward. Veterans are always important to your success.”
Keys To Victory
Rutgers has been a good rebounding team since Steve Pikiell arrived, but Illinois is elite around the glass. Cockburn and Giorgi are two of the best offensive rebounders in the country so if they dominate in this area on Sunday it will be difficult to beat the Illini. How Johnson and Omoruyi do matching up against them will be key, but so will how the wings and guards of Rutgers do on the glass. Paul Mulcahy and Montez Mathis have rebounded well this season and should have the advantage with their matchups in this game. Of course, limiting second chance scoring opportunities from behind the arc on kickouts after offensive rebounds is a major key to Rutgers limiting such an explosive offense as well.
Elite Defense for 40 Minutes
Speaking of the defensive end, it’s time for Rutgers to deliver their best effort in this area so far this season. Last year in splitting the two meetings against Illinois, they held them to just 28.6% shooting in a loss and 31.1% shooting in the win. From three-point range, the Illini made just 10 of 42 attempts (23.8%). Rutgers will need that same type of defensive tenacity they displayed against them previously on Sunday to have a chance to win against an even better offense than the one they faced last season. Sealing off driving lanes, closing out on shooters, and forcing turnovers are all things that Rutgers must do well in this game. They’re capable but haven’t put together a complete defensive performance yet this season. Now is the time.
Speaking of turnovers, Rutgers needs to be smart but opportunistic with pushing the pace and producing scoring opportunities off the break. I think they are one of the few teams that can actually run with Illinois and keep pace, but they can’t get into a trap of playing out of control. They also can’t let Illinois dominate on the break either. Illinois doesn’t actually force a lot of turnovers and that bodes well for Jacob Young. He has to bring his A game and be that top flight ball distributor and penetrator he is capable of being. If he has a stretch of three turnovers in a couple of minutes, it could spell disaster. Look for Mathis to attack the paint in transition, as well as Harper Jr. and Baker to find open looks from behind the arc, which they must convert if RU wants a W.
Jumping off of the transition game, Rutgers can’t allow sustained scoring runs by Illinois, which could put them in a hole that will be very difficult to climb out of. Rutgers is capable of doing so if that does happen, but it certainly isn’t ideal. Having to comeback from double digits against a team like Illinois is exhausting and could cause them to fall short down the stretch. On the flip side, if Rutgers can produce a big run at any point, it would be huge. Basketball is a game of runs and both teams will make them on Sunday. It’s a just a matter of which team makes the biggest run and when it occurs that could be a deciding factor.
It may be a Sunday matinee tip-off, but this is a big time college basketball game. Two top twenty teams will battle that are similarly balanced and have played tight games in the past. The outcome is likely to be determined by which team’s big guns play better. Dosunmu and Cockburn can’t roam free, while Harper Jr. and Geo need to make shots and control the game down the stretch. It’s not all about scoring and the leadership of the Rutgers duo will be paramount to the team’s success in this matchup.
Appropriate Music Selection
For the sixth game of the season, I selected “Spilling Faith” by Ben Harper. Lyrics include:
“Don’t let one day go to waste. I’m filling space, I’m spilling faith. Things are looking up today. I didn’t have to look away. There’s so much to be said for letting go. So much tomorrow only knows.”
Not only do the lyrics work for this game, but it’s has a great jam session too.
This is the only time Rutgers plays Illinois in the regular season and it’s a huge opportunity. A win would do wonders for this team’s chances to finish in the top four of the Big Ten and it would be a signature win that would hold up all season. It would also send a message across college basketball that Rutgers isn’t just good now, but that they have a chance to make a deep run come March. It’s going to take a complete effort for Rutgers to beat Illinois and if there is one thing we know about this team, they know that too and will be ready to give the visitors their best shot.