2021 Big Ten Tournament
No. 2 Illinois (20-6; 16-4) vs. No. 7 Rutgers (15-10; 10-10)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana
Tip-off: Friday, March 12 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler and Stephen Bardo
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 31, which is two spots better since an 11 point win over Indiana on Thursday. Illinois is 5, which is the same spot they were in after a 5 point win over Ohio State last Saturday.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 109.4 (69th) Defense 89.6 (14th); Illinois - Offense 119.0 (8th) Defense 88.5 (7th)
KenPom Prediction: Illinois 74 Rutgers 66. Rutgers is given a 25% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Illinois -7.5
Series History: Illinois leads the all-time series 8-3 but Rutgers has won the last two meetings. This includes a 91-88 victory on December 14 earlier this season.
Illinois SB Nation Site: The Champaign Room
Illinois - 6’5” junior Ayo Dosunmu (20.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists 1.1 steals, 40.0% 3-pt FG); 7’0” sophomore Kofi Cockburn (17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 66.0% FG); 6’2” senior Trent Frazier (10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 48.3% 3-pt FG); 6’1” freshman Andre Curbelo (8.8 points, 4.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 49.7% FG); 6’3” freshman Adam Miller (8.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 33.6% 3-pt FG); 6’3 senior DaMonte Williams (5.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 54.5% 3-pt FG); 6’9” junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili (5.3 points, 2.6 assists, 57.1% FG); 6’6’ redshirt junior Jacob Grandison (4.5 points, 3.5 assists, 1.4 assists, 50.0% FG)
Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (15.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 32.3% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (14.4 points, 3.6 assists, 2.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 36.0% 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 31.1% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (8.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 29.4 % 3-pt FG); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.0 steal, 63.0% FG); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (5.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 37.3% 3-pt FG); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (5.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 1.6 assists); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (3.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 67.7% FG)
The Illini have won 11 of its last 12 games and are playing as well as any team in the country not named Gonzaga. In fact, over the past two seasons, Illinois has produced the best combined record in Big Ten play at 29-11. That is four games better than the next closest foe in Iowa, who went 25-15. However, it is interesting to note that the Illini struggled against four teams over that span. They are winless against Michigan State (0-3) and Maryland (0-3) and have losing records against Ohio State (1-2) and Rutgers (1-2). All four teams have big guards and athletic wings that can pressure the ball and defend multiple positions. Against the rest of the conference, Illinois is dominant with a 27-1 record over the past two seasons.
The Illini are extremely balanced on both sides of the ball. The Illini average 80.7 points per game and are allowing 68.5 points per contest. They can be explosive on offense and stifling on defense. They finished Big Ten play with the third best offensive efficiency rating and second best defensive efficiency rating.
Offensively, Illinois was first in effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage, as well as second in offensive rebounding rate and free throw rate. They were just 11th in free throw shooting percentage and 12th in turnover rate.
Defensively, they held opponents to the lowest offensive rebounding rate in the league, were second in effective field goal percentage defense and two-point field goal percentage defense. However, they are just 9th in defensive turnover rate and 13th in block rate.
Ayo Dosunmu is an extremely talented player who can take over a game in an instant. He recently missed three games and Illinois didn’t miss a beat, but Dosunmu elevates them to another level. While he did have a good game against Rutgers in December (22 points on 50% shooting, 11 rebounds, 6 assists), he did struggle a bit with 4 turnovers and 4 fouls despite playing 38 minutes.
Kofi Cockburn is a tremendous big man who had 17 points and 12 rebounds in the first matchup at the RAC, but that didn’t prevent Myles Johnson from playing well too. Along with Giorgi Bezhanishvili, the Illini have size upfront. However, this team is not particularly big along the perimeter but have a talented backcourt.
Rutgers is averaging 70.0 points per game and they are allowing 67.4 points per contest. Overall, the Scarlet Knights are shooting 45.0% from the floor, 31.4%from three-point range and 62.7% from the foul line. In Big Ten play, they finished 9th in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency.
Offensively, RU was 4th in turnover rate and 7th in two-point shooting percentage, but are only 11th in three-point shooting percentage, 12th in free throw rate and 13th in free throw shooting percentage. Their tempo rate is 8th in league play.
Defensively, Rutgers has the best steal rate and block rate, as well as 2nd in turnover rate and 5th in both effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage, as well as 6th in three-point field goal percentage. However, they are 11th in opponent free throw rate and just 13th in opponent offensive rebounding rate.
Rutgers’ strength of schedule is ranked 8th nationally per KenPom. They won double digit conference games in back to back seasons for the first time ever since joining the Big Ten and first time overall since the 1989-1990 and 1990-1991 seasons.
Steve Pikiell is 4-3 in Big Ten Tournament play with two wins over Indiana, as well as victories over Ohio State and Minnesota. The Scarlet Knights will play in the Big Ten quarterfinals for just the second time ever.
The last time Rutgers made the semifinals of a conference tournament was in the 1998 Big East Tournament when Geoff Billet hit a shot at the buzzer to beat Georgetown. They lost by double digits to UCONN in the semis.
Rutgers moved up three spots in the NET rankings after the win over Indiana to no. 35.
On having confidence going into the game against Illinois:
“My group is confident. We’ve never had an issue there. So, again, every team in this league is really good. Illinois, obviously, is playing great basketball. Much respect for their program. But you play teams like that in this league. Everyone’s pretty good, and we’re going have to play really well and we’re going have to do a lot of things well to slow them down.”
On how his team has battled through injuries:
“Everyone knows you’re 40 minutes away from shutting it down and having your season end. So, it’s a different flavor. I really loved the environment here today. I know it was a pro-Indiana crowd. But just to have people in the stands, gets us a little bit closer to what it used to be like. But you know, like I tell my guys all the time, this isn’t the time to be sore. They’ve battled a lot through the year and Indiana’s had their issues with injuries. It’s a hard thing to deal with all season long when you got guys that you’re counting on that can’t play. Thankful that Paul plays through it, but all our guys are a little bit banged up at this time of the year and you know this isn’t the time, you can rest after.”
On whether the team came to Indianapolis with something to prove:
“Oh, yeah, we kind of have that chip on our shoulder, knowing that our season got cut short. Really, really cut short last year and kind of just been carrying with us this season. And again here finally be able to play in the Big Ten Tournament, finally be able to play later on in March, is just such a great feeling, so it’s just we got to take each game one at a time and now we’re moving on to another game.”
On whether they will be playing with nothing to lose against Illinois:
“Well, we’re supposed to win every game. So, not really going to say that. But I definitely think that it’s not really that we don’t have anything to lose, we have a lot of prove. So, we’re going to get there and play Rutgers basketball. Play Rutgers defense and come out with the win, hopefully.”
On not panicking when the team was down 10 in the first half:
“Yeah, I mean, this whole year, we’ve hit adversity. It’s been a roller coaster. And it just gets summed up in a 40-minute game. But we stayed together. We play for each other. And yeah, there’s highs and lows but as long as we stay together, we play for each other. I really believe in us.“
Keys To Victory
In the first meeting between these two teams, Rutgers had its second most efficient offensive performance of the season. On the flip side, they had one of its least efficient performances on the defensive end. The bottom line is that if Friday’s style of play is similar to the first meeting, Rutgers could lose by a lot. They don’t have the firepower to keep up offensively and they aren’t getting 36 free throw attempts like they did in the first meeting. They need to make this game a physical grind in the paint while looking for spots to run in transition.
Rutgers matches up well against the Illini because it has size in the backcourt to put pressure on the ball and force Illinois to run its offense farther away from the basket. The Illini haven’t turned it over a lot this season, but RU forced them into 13 turnovers in the first meeting. The key is the Scarlet Knights can’t be overly aggressive and foul too much. Even though Illinois struggles from the foul line, Rutgers can’t afford to get into foul trouble as they’ll be fighting uphill all night.
Rutgers also MUST avoid a slow start or this game could get out of hand early. Illinois might need a little time to adjust to shooting in a football stadium the way most teams have so far. Establishing rhythm on both ends at the start is key for RU to having a good performance, win or lose.
The Illini crash the offensive glass and get to the free throw line, so they are really good at creating scoring chances off of action, not just initial shots. What Rutgers can’t do is make it easy on them by turning it over and allow them to get up the court on fast break opportunities. Illinois plays the second fastest tempo in the Big Ten and RU can’t let them speed up the game to the point they lose control.
In the first meeting three months ago, Rutgers did a great job holding a 15-10 edge in offensive rebounds and only committed 9 turnovers in the game. The issue on Friday is these are areas the Scarlet knights have been inconsistent with and need to be sharp in to pull off the upset.
Rutgers can win without playing its best game on the offensive end, but it probably can’t win without playing its best game on the defensive end. That being said, they need to be smart on offense by sharing the basketball, making the extra pass and avoid forcing contested jumpers. Not getting caught late in the shot clock by having to take a bad shot is a trap they can’t fall into.
Look for Jacob Young to try and slow down Andre Curbelo, who has really developed as a freshman. As for Ayo, expect Steve Pikiell to throw multiple defenders at him throughout the game. After playing just 5 minutes in heavy foul trouble on Thursday, it would be a great time for Montez Mathis to refocus and deliver a some big minutes defensively off the bench. Caleb McConnell will be key as well.
Inside will be a battle against Myles Johnson and Kofi Cockburn and will go a long way determining which team will win. How Cliff Omoruyi performs will be important as Rutgers can’t avoid a drop off when Johnson is on the bench. Perhaps we’ll see Giorgi out there with Kofi, so a matchup with Cliff and Myles at the same time is a possibility. Having the size upfront to contend with the Illini is another reason Rutgers matches up well against them.
Overall, Rutgers needs to avoid long scoring droughts, limit unforced errors, get back on defense in transition and crash the boards. It’s a lot to ask to play your best game against a potential no. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after playing the night before, but this is the task ahead of them. However, the players are excited for the challenge and feel they have something to prove. If they can do just that and pull off the upset, Rutgers will gain even more respect and move up a seed line or maybe even two for the NCAA’s while doing it.
Appropriate Music Selection
Now that it is the postseason, the stakes have changed. It’s time for Pearl Jam and “Alive” once again. However, let’s throw it back to an old version compared to a more recent performance that I used last night.
As Norman Dale says, “There’s a tradition in tournament play to not talk about the next step until you’ve climbed the one in front of you.”
Making the Big Ten semifinals for the first time ever and getting another shot at Iowa would be a lot of fun with nothing to lose. Tonight is a great opportunity to play one of the best teams in college basketball on the big stage. This team relishes the opportunity and I expect them to play loose because of it. Now is all about surviving and advancing from here on out, but even if RU plays relatively well in a loss it should boost its confidence heading into March Madness. At the end of the night, hopefully they can sing “I’m still alive.”