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Rutgers puts Big Ten on notice

This team has a legitimate chance to win the conference title after a statement win over Illinois on Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers basketball isn’t just improved or simply good. This team proved in a 91-88 victory over no. 13 Illinois that they are legitimate contenders to win the Big Ten title.

After a subpar first half that saw Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker struggle, poor defense and as a team only made 2 of 8 from the free throw line, Rutgers only trailed by 4 points at the break. They had trailed by as many as 11 in the opening frame. I looked at it as an optimistic sign that things would be different in the second half.

They were very different, as Rutgers scored 54 second half points and held Illinois without a three-point shot attempt until the final minutes of the game after they went 5 of 9 in the first half. They held things tight on the glass, made big shots and kept their composure on their way to a win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Ron Harper Jr. has officially arrived on the national stage and is a legitimate contender for Big Ten Player of the Year after scoring a game high 28 points on 60% shooting, including 5 of 8 from three-point range, as well as 9 rebounds. He was the best player on the floor in a game that included Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, two of the top players in college basketball.

Jacob Young carried the offense early on and finished with 24 points on 8 fo 15 shooting, 4 assists and was able to push the pace that helped Rutgers hold a 29-22 edge in fast break points.

Myles Johnson held his own against Cockburn without Cliff Omoruyi, who left injured and finished with 9 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals in another impressive performance for the big fella.

Montez Mathis was able to attack from the wing and made two big three-pointers to finish with 15 points, as well as played his usual tough defense on multiple players.

Geo Baker only scored 7 points, but he led Rutgers with 5 assists, committed just 1 turnover, had 2 steals. His leadership kept this team calm and steady when they needed to be.

Paul Mulcahy was a thorn in the side of Illinois and punctured them most when drawing a flagrant foul that gave Rutgers an extra possession and helped steer momentum in a positive direction. He finished with 8 points and 7 rebounds while making all six free throw attempts. He continues to do the little things for this team.

Perhaps the most impressive thing was Rutgers from the foul line. After starting a miserable 2 of 8, as a team they finished the game making 23 of 28 attempts for 82%, which helped keep Illinois at bay and seal the victory down the stretch.

They also out rebounded an elite team on the glass in Illinois, which was also a big accomplishment.

The only concern about this team is depth. Mawot Mag sprained his ankle and is out indefinitely. Omoruyi left the game with an injury and no update was provided after the game. That leaves just six players in the core rotation as Caleb McConnell sits out this season with an injury. However, depth is a concern for pretty much every college basketball team not named Kentucky or Kansas. The top six players for Rutgers are as versatile and talented as any team in the Big Ten has.

Rutgers isn’t just good, they are a strong enough team that is capable of winning the Big Ten. They have the toughness, can shut down any offense and now can score in multiple ways. The veterans on this team sense the opportunity in front of them and have taken full advantage of it so far this season. They believe they can beat any team they face and are out to prove it every game. Sunday’s win over Illinois wasn’t a cause for celebration for the players, it was business as usual and what they expected to happen. It’s time for the Big Ten to expect the same.