Rutgers (4-3) at Illinois (5-2)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois (15,500 capacity)
Tip-off: Friday, December 3 at 7:00 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2 - Mike Couzens & Robbie Hummel
Stream: ESPN App
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers - No. 88, five spots better following a 74-64 win over Clemson on Tuesday; Illinois - No. 22, one spot better following a 82-72 win over Notre Dame on Monday.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 103.8 (122nd) Defense 94.8 (57th); Illinois - Offense 111.5 (23rd) Defense 91.4 (26th)
KenPom Prediction: Illinois 72 Rutgers 61. Rutgers is given a 17% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Illinois -7.5
Series History: Illinois leads the all-time series 9-3 with the last meeting coming last March in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. The Illini won 90-68. Rutgers won the only regular season meeting last season at the RAC by the score of 91-88.
Brad Underwood’s team comes in at 5-2 and dealing with a multitude of injuries and sickness. In this week’s win over Notre Dame, Illinois was missing Andre Curbelo (neck) and Austin Hutcherson (tailbone) due to injury, while Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk was out with an illness. This article detailed that the flu was running through the Illini locker room.
Underwood stated earlier this week prior to the win over Notre Dame about the situation, “We’ve definitely got the flu bug going around. We did not practice (Saturday) because of everything we have going on and going around. I have never in my 35 years not practiced because of that. We’re all in a tough spot.”
To their credit, Illinois beat Notre Dame and now with a few more days having passed, they could be a lot farther along in regard to dealing with flu issues. Monday’s game also marked the return of Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison after missing time previously.
When profiling Illinois, you have to start with 7’0” junior Kofi Cockburn. He missed the first three games to a silly NCAA suspension, but is averaging 26.8 points on 70.7% shooting and grabbing 9.5 rebounds in four games. He is a force to be reckoned with and is a major problem for any opponent.
6’1” super senior Alfonso Plummer is averaging 13.9 points and is shooting 42.9% from three-point range (21-49). The 6’6” Grandison started four games before missing time and is averaging 10.5 points and shooting 52.9% from deep (9-17) as well as 4.2 rebounds. 6’10” sophomore Coleman Hawkins is averaging 9.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
Frazier brings lots of experience to the Illini and is averaging 8.4 points and 3.0 assists. His return is key as Curbelo is expected to miss tonight’s game as well.
As a team, Illinois is shooting 45.5% from the floor, 34.8% from three-point range and 68.2% from the foul line. They are holding opponents to 40.3% shooting and 30.8% from behind the arc.
Not surprisingly, the Illini are scoring a lot in the paint and are 8th nationally in offensive rebounding rate (39.6%). On the flip side, they’re limiting opponents on the offensive glass (23.4%, 49th nationally) and holding foes under 45% shooting from two-point range.
A weakness is that they average almost 17 turnovers a game and have a terrible turnover rate at 23.4% (322nd nationally). They also do not force turnovers from opponents.
Steve Pikiell Quotes
Entering Big Ten play
“The non-conference games were so important for our team to learn lessons. We have had segments where our defense has been great. We have to decide that we team we want to be.”
Defending Kofi Cockburn
“Kofi Cockburn is one of the best pure post-up guys in the country. He’s huge. Cliff is going to be tested in a lot of ways and his basketball IQ will really come into fruition in the next couple of games.”
Keys To Victory
Illinois is dealing with a lot of roster issues, so how many minutes to expect from certain players is a bit of a wild card heading into this game.
The reality is it will be very difficult for Rutgers to matchup with Kofi Cockburn. The hope is that Cliff Omoruyi can stay out of foul trouble and slow him down a bit. Otherwise, it’s hard to envision him not having a huge game. If Cliff has to leave due to foul trouble, it could get ugly inside. I think rather than countering with just a substitute, Rutgers will need to incorporate some kind of zone mix or junk defense to try to slow him down even a bit.
The key is defending the perimeter and forcing ball pressure on the Illinois guards. They are vulnerable to turning it over and limiting their makes from three is key. Closing out on shooters is a must and is something they can’t caught being late on, especially if the guards are hedging to help double on Cockburn in the paint. Using their length to disrupt passing lanes could help RU be effective in forcing takeaways.
When Rutgers does force turnovers, they have to look to run. The less they have to run a halfcourt offense and attempt to attack the rim with Cockburn defending the rim, the better. Looking to play faster and push the ball in transition is something the Scarlet Knights haven’t done a lot of this season but is crucial to do in this matchup.
Forcing Illinois into long possessions on both ends and making them defend in transition is certainly a way to attempt to tire this depleted team out.
Rutgers has to be smart with the ball and make good decisions. They need to have better situational awareness to limit easy baskets off of mistakes. They have to shoot much better than they have (47.3% two-point range; 26.0% three-point range) in order to even have a shot at winning. This is a game they need to be aware of Cockburn’s presence in the paint. Pulling up for mid-range jumpers could be a better option rather than getting sucked into the rim only to get suffocated at times. Hitting open shots generated by good ball movement will be key as well.
Ron Harper Jr. will need to have a big game for RU to have a chance. They wouldn’t have beaten Illinois last season without arguably his best game and they’ll need him again tonight. It’s likely someone off the bench will need to make an impact as well. This game has a feel for Aundre Hyatt stepping up with his size and versatility matching up well.
This is a really important game for Rutgers and a difficult one to open Big Ten play. Geo Baker is expected to be out again and that means Caleb McConnell, Paul Mulcahy and Jaden Jones need to step up in his absence. Illinois is going to swallow the paint, so the guards have to produce. The potential impact that Jalen Miller could make is an x-factor in this game.
Starting strong, playing with energy and purpose while settling in defensively for a 40 minute effort on that end are really important in order to have an opportunity to win this game.
For the eighth game of the season, I selected “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” by the Grateful Dead. This is for reader Simone15 for making a request on the last game preview. One of the best live acts in the history of music also connect to a concern for Rutgers this season so far.
Two road trips, two losses. The Scarlet Knights lost to both DePaul and UMass in the closing seconds on a last second three-pointer. Logic would dictate that Rutgers doesn’t have much of a chance against Illinois tonight. However, it’s all in the energy and attitude that this team plays with in how they could potentially pull the upset. They’ve played well at Illinois in the past, losing by 3 points without Geo two seasons ago.
As I’ve said plenty, this team typically plays well with their backs against the wall. This is an opportunity to give life to the idea of turning the season around. Time to stop that bad feeling on the road and make a big statement in the Big Ten opener.