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Rutgers men’s basketball game preview vs. no. 22 Illinois

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The Scarlet Knights look to even the score with the Illini at the RAC. Find out how to watch, stats, and keys to victory.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 11 Rutgers at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No. 22 Illinois (16-8; 8-5) At Rutgers (17-8; 8-6)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: The RAC (8,000) in Piscataway, New Jersey (Sold Out)

Tip-off: Saturday, February 15 at 4:30 p.m. ET.

TV: BTN - Cory Provus & Jess Settles

Stream: Fox Sports App

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network (WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 195/Sirius 211) Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM - Corey Jason and Rah Shah

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers 33rd; Illinois 29th; Rutgers stayed even after Wednesday’s loss to Ohio State. Illinois dropped 2 spots after a 1 point loss to Michigan State on Tuesday.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 106.9 (80th) Defense 90.0 (11th); Illinois - Offense 109.8 (46th) Defense 92.2 (26th)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 66 Illinois 63. Rutgers given a 61% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Rutgers -4

Series History: Illinois leads the all-time series 8-1, including a 54-51 victory on January 11 in Champaign.

SB Nation’s Illinois Site: The Champaign Room

Key Contributors

Illinois - 6’5” sophomore Ayo Donunmu (15.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists); 7’0” freshman Kofi Cockburn (13.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 52.2% FG); 6’2” senior Andres Feliz (11.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists); 6’2” junior Trent Frazier (9.5 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 36.1% 3-pt FG); 6’5” sophomore Alan Griffin (8.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 40.0% 3-pt FG); Giorgi Bezhanishvili (7.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists); 6’6” senior Kipper Nichols (3.7 points, 2.1 rebounds); 6’3” junior Da’Monte Williams (2.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists)

Rutgers - 6’6” sophomore Ron Harper Jr. (11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.0 assist); 6’4” junior Geo Baker (10.1 points, 3.4 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals); 6’6” senior Akwasi Yeboah (10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 37.9% 3-pt FG); 6’2” junior Jacob Young (8.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists); 6’10” sophomore Myles Johnson (8.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 64.2% FG); 6’7” sophomore Caleb McConnell (7.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists); 6’4” sophomore Montez Mathis (7.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals); 6’6” freshman Paul Mulcahy (3.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 55.7% FG); 6’9” senior Shaq Carter (3.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 57.8% FG)

Illinois Scouting Report

Head coach Brad Underwood is in his third season with the Illini, who have lost three straight after an 8-2 start to Big Ten play. They come to Piscataway fresh off a last second, 1 point loss at home on Tuesday to Michigan State. On the final play of the game, leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu fell and was helped off the court. While tests showed no structural damage to his knees and he is not expected to be out long term, it is unclear whether he will play against Rutgers. Underwood did confirm on Friday that Dosunmu is day-to-day, has participated in some practice activities and that he is making the trip to New Jersey.

Illinois is a balanced team and is very physical with a lot of size upfront. 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.

Offensively, they average 73.6 points per game overall this season, but only 63.8 points in Big Ten play. The Illini are shooting 44.8% from the floor, 31.3% from three-point range and 73.5% from the free throw line this season. In addition, they’ve made 40 more free throws than opponents have even attempted this season, which is incredible.

They are currently 11th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency and 3rd in defensive efficiency.

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 10th this season so far. The Illini like you muck it up in the interior, as they are an excellent rebounding team and rank third nationally in rebounding margin (+9.1).

If Dosunmu plays, Illinois will have the two most talented players on the court in this game with him and Cockburn, one of the best freshman in the nation who gave Rutgers trouble in the first meeting. Andres Feliz, Alan Griffin and Trent Frazier can all have moments of standing out on the offensive end as well.

In the first meeting between Rutgers and Illinois this season, in which Geo Baker missed, the Illini were +6 on the boards with the difference in the offensive glass (16-10). Amazingly, Rutgers held Illinois to 28.6% shooting while making 33.9% and held them to 2 of 14 from three (14.3%) while making 8 of 23 (34.8%) from behind the arc. Hard to expect that to happen again. The big difference was at the free throw line, as the Illini were 16 of 19 (84.2% while RU was just 3 of 8 (37.5%).

Notes

As a team, Rutgers averages 70.4 points per game and is shooting 44.6% from the floor, 30.1% from three-point range, and 64.6% from the free throw line......The Scarlet Knights are 9th nationally in rebounding (40.64), 15th in field goal percentage defense (38.2%), 19th in rebound margin (+6.8), 21st in scoring defense (61.8), 37th in blocks (4.6) and 47th in scoring margin (8.6).......Rutgers is undefeated this season at the RAC (16-0), as well as when they score 15 or more fast break points (9-0).......RU has an RPI ranking of 43 and a NET ranking of 32, which is used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to help determine the field of 68 at the end of the season....Rutgers is currently 10th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency.........The Scarlet Knights’ remaining schedule ranks 1st nationally in difficulty per ESPN’s BPI.

Keys To Victory

Fast Start

In the past four home games for Rutgers, they’ve fallen into early deficits during the opening minutes. They were able to battle back in each contest and ultimately win, but they can’t afford to continue digging themselves into an early hole. It’s imperative against a tough Illinois team that they figuratively land the first punch in this game. Whether Dosunmu plays or not, the Illini have lost three in a row while coming off a 1 point stomach punch loss earlier this week. On the flip side, Rutgers needs to kick start it’s confidence and get the RAC faithful to be loud at the start. The more lively the atmosphere and more energy that RU is playing with early on, the harder it will be for Illinois to take control of the game. They need to display their trademark defensive intensity from the opening tip and be smart offensively. Seems like the right time to reinsert Geo Baker into the starting lineup to give this team a boost hopefully.

Avoid Being Stagnant on Offense

As much as Rutgers can show energy and urgency on the defensive end, they need to exhibit the same on offense in this game. Illinois is 14th in defensive turnover rate, 13th in block and steal rate. However they force opponents into low shooting percentages. The Scarlet Knights need to be smart in attacking offensively and their ability to knock down the mid-range jumper is key in this game. Cue Ron Harper Jr., who excels in this area and needs to look for his shot more so from 10-12 feet away from the rim as opposed to behind the arc.

Getting Myles Johnson involved early on is really important and while you can’t expect him to outplay Cockburn, he needs to be in the mix. In the first meeting, Johnson only played 13 minutes, producing just 4 points and 2 rebounds. Cockburn was a monster, finishing with 11 points, 17 rebounds and 2 blocks. Rutgers needs Johnson on the court and attacking Cockburn in hopes of getting him in foul trouble and contesting him on the boards.

Ball reversals and moving without the ball in the halfcourt will only make Illinois work harder on defense while hopefully leading to more quality shots. Of course, when Illinois plays two true big men at the same time in Cockburn and Giorgi, looking to speed up the game and be aggressive in creating opportunities in transition would be wise. Getting offense out of turnovers on the defensive end is when Rutgers is at its best.

Battle of the Boards

Illinois has the second best offensive rebounding rate in Big Ten play, while holding opponents to second lowest rate as well. Cockburn was a big reason they controlled the glass in the first meeting, but four of his teammates grabbed 5 or more rebounds. Rutgers has its usual team approach to rebounding and five players did grab at least 5 boards. The issue was Johnson, who I previously mentioned, and Shaq Carter, combined for just 6 rebounds between them. That can’t happen against a team like Illinois if you have any hope of controlling the glass. Whichever team that can assert themselves inside, especially on the offensive boards, could have the deciding edge in what will likely be another low scoring, tight game.

Nothing Easy for Illinois

Illinois is 13th in conference play in two point and three point shooting. Rutgers is in the top 5 of every defensive advanced statistic in conference play other than free throw rate 10th. Rutgers has to contest every Illinois shot and the more they can keep them out of the lane, the better. However, they need to limit fouls and avoid falling into the bonus too early in both halves. Rutgers needs to do to Illinois what most teams try and to them: force them to beat you with jump shots and three-pointers. Expect some double teams on Cockburn, but Rutgers needs to recover and not allow open looks, as well as the need to play much better help side defense than they have in recent games.

Mental Toughness

Both of these teams are extremely tough minded and keep coming at their opponents for 40 minutes. Rutgers is on a quick turnaround after playing at Ohio State on Wednesday night. Illinois played at home on Tuesday, but suffered a gut wrenched times two with the 1 point defeat and injury to its best player. Whichever team can recover faster mentally and be sharper in the first half will likely be able to grab control in the game. It’s going to be a proverbial fist fight again between these two teams. How they are able to hold up in crunch time by minimizing mistakes and execute down the stretch will likely be the difference in he game.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the twenty-sixth game of the season I’m featuring “You Worry Me” by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. One of my favorite bands right now and fantastic band name too. Although I’m still confident this team will get to 20 regular season wins, after Wednesday’s loss some fans are getting very nervous, which is fair. I think this song is perfectly timed and here are three lines from the song that tap into the current state of things:

“I’m gonna leave it all out there.”

“I’ve had dreams of you in places I’ve not seen before.”

“You worry me.”

A win on Saturday would put Rutgers ahead of Illinois in the standings at one win closer to ending the program’s 29 year NCAA Tournament drought. This team has yet to play a complete game this season and I think they are capable of finishing the season strong. Big game Saturday, let’s hope they can preserve the perfect record at the RAC with a much needed victory. Rutgers should have confidence back at the RAC with Baker playing after losing to Illinois by just 3 points on the road without him in the first meeting.