No. 12 Illinois (18-6; 11-3) at Rutgers (15-9; 9-5)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway, New Jersey (Capacity 8,000)
(Vaccination policy for indoor events here)
Tip-off: Wednesday, February 16 at 7:00 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin and Jess Settles
Stream: FOX Sports Live
NET Rankings: Rutgers No. 81; Illinois No. 13 (Quad 1 opponent)
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers - No. 75, nine spots better following a 73-65 victory over No. 36 Wisconsin. Illinois - No. 15, the same spot before a 73-66 win over No. 60 Northwestern on Sunday.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 105.7 (113th) Defense 95.4 (53rd); Illinois - Offense 113.6 (23rd) Defense 92.2 (23rd)
KenPom Prediction: Illinois 68 Rutgers 64; Rutgers is given a 36% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Illinois -4.5
Series History: Illinois leads the all-time series 10-3 including an 86-51 win over Rutgers on December 3 this season. They’ve won two in a row in the series, but have lost the previous two seasons when visiting the RAC.
A special edition of Ralph's Corner for YOU, the fans to get you set for Wednesday night's BLACKOUT vs. Illinois.— Rutgers Basketball (@RutgersMBB) February 15, 2022
Concession stand sales at Jersey Mike’s Arena will return to full service! Proof of vaccination or negative COVID PCR test as well as face masks are still required. pic.twitter.com/v6CuhwAmBr
Illinois: 7’0” junior Kofi Cockburn - 21.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, 60.7% FG; 6’1” graduate senior Alfonso Plummer - 15.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 40.7% 3-pt FG; 6’2” senior Trent Frazier - 12.5 points, 4.0 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 33.8% 3-pt FG; 6’6” graduate senior Jacob Grandison - 10.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 40.7% 3-pt FG; 6’1” sophomore Andre Curbelo - 9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists; 6’10” sophomore Coleman Hawkins - 5.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 26.2% 3-pt FG; 6’3” senior Da’Monte Williams - 4.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 33.3% 3-pt FG; 6’7” freshman RJ Melendez - 3.6 points, 1.8 rebounds; 6’10” junior Omar Payne - 2.0 points, 1.9 rebounds, 62.1% FG; 6’8” redshirt sophomore Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk - 2.0 points, 2.5 rebounds
Rutgers: 6’6” senior Ron Harper Jr. - 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 41.1% 3-pt FG; 6’4” redshirt senior Geo Baker - 12.5 points, 4.1 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 34.2% 3-pt FG; 6’11” sophomore Cliff Omoruyi - 11.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.3 block, 61.3% FG; 6’6” junior Paul Mulcahy - 8.9 points, 5.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 33.9% 3-pt FG; 6’7” senior Caleb McConnell - 6.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 2.2 assists, 27.5% 3-pt FG; 6’6” sophomore Aundre Hyatt - 4.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 25.6% 3-pt FG; 6’8” freshman Jaden Jones - 3.6 points, 1.2 rebounds; 6’7” sophomore Mawot Mag - 3.3 points, 2.2 rebounds; 6’10 sophomore Dean Reiber - 2.9 points, 1.2 rebounds, 54.3% FG; 6’8” senior Ralph Gonzales-Agee - 2.2 points, 1.1 rebounds, 52.2% FG; 6’8” sophomore Oskar Palmquist - 1.5 points, 5-11 3-pt FG; 6’2” freshman Jalen Miller - 0.9 points
The Illini come to Piscataway alone in first place in the Big Ten and a 5-2 conference road record. Both defeats were by double digits at Maryland and last week at Purdue. They’ve also lost their last two trips to the RAC. Even so, Illinois is a really good team that is very balanced on both ends of the floor. They are 5-4 against KenPom Top 50 teams and 11-6 against Top 100 teams.
They’re averaging 76.6 points per game and opponents are scoring just 66.2 points per contest. Illinois is a really good shooting team with multiple threats from mid-range and deep. They are shooting 53.0% from two-point range (64th) and 36.6% (43rd) from three-point range, but are in the middle of the pack nationally in shooting 71.3% (179th) from the foul line.
Illinois is a great rebounding team with Kofi Cockburn an elite glass eater. As a team, they have an offensive rebounding rate of 35.0% (18th) and are limiting opponents to just 25.3% on the offensive glass (68th).
Defensively, the Illini are holding opponents to only 43.8% from two-point range (13th) and 31.2% from three-point range (74th). They do not block a lot of shots (242nd) or create a lot of steals (314th).
In Big Ten play, Illinois is 5th in offensive efficiency and 1st in defensive efficiency. They have the second best offensive rebounding rate (31.2%) in league action and are 4th in two-point shooting at 52.0%. On the other end, they are holding opponents to the lowest effective field goal percentage (45.1%) and two-point shooting (44.4%) in the league. They are also second in defending the three (31.4%) and 4th in limiting foes on the offensive glass (24.4%).
Cockburn is likely the Big Ten Player of the Year and is an absolute monster near the rim. He is limited offensively outside of 5 feet but is a solid passer for his size. Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer has been their best perimeter player and is the biggest threat from three. Trent Frazier is a tremendous two-way player who has struggled offensively of late, as he’s scored in double figures just once over his last five games. Freshman AJ Melendez is coming off a strong performance against Northwestern in which Illinois was held to 29 second half points. Da’Monte Williams is an excellent defender and Andre Curbelo has a ton of potential but failed to put it all together at the point this season. Jacob Grandison is a good distrubtor and balanced player. All that being said, this is an extremely talented and deep team that includes a matchup problem with Coleman Hawkins.
For the season, the Scarlet Knights are averaging 68.4 points per game and allowing 64.8 points per contest.....RU is shooting only 48.4% from two-point range (231st), 34.2% from three-point range (147th) and 71.1% from the foul line (187th)......They are ranked 12th nationally in assist rate at 62.1%, 23rd in two-point defense in holding opponents to 45.4% shooting, 42nd in defensive block rate at 12.6% and 61st in defensive steal rate at 11.1%.......Rutgers is 7th in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play so far this season......RU is 2nd from three-point range at 38.5% shooting, 4th in free throw shooting at 75.1% and 5th in offensive rebounding rate at 28.9% in league play........They are in the top four in five of eight defensive categories in Big Ten play including 2nd in steal rate and block rate, 3rd in turnover rate and free throw rate, while 4th in holding opponents to 47.8% in two-point shooting.....A win over No. 12 Illinois would mark the first time in program history that Rutgers would have beaten four ranked foes in consecutive games……The most points Rutgers has allowed an opponent to score this season was Illinois in an 86-51 loss in first Big Ten game of the season.
Keys To Victory
In the first meeting back in early December, Geo Baker and Andre Curbelo did not play. The game turned with Kofi Cockburn passing out of double teams to find open shooters. It resulted in six different Illinois players making threes in the first half and it helped to produce a 19-4 first half run. They led by 20 at the half in Champaign and Rutgers showed little fight in the second half. The 35 point defeat is their worst of the season and RU allowed the most points in a game all year with Illinois scoring 86.
While Brad Underwood’s team is no surprise sitting at the top of the league standings, Rutgers is on a remarkable run that has them just two games out of first place. Illinois has also lost their last two trips to Piscataway, even last season without fans.
Defending the three and forcing turnovers will be keys for Rutgers to win this game.
Cockburn is going to get points inside, but the last time they played, he burned RU when they double teamed him. What’s been more effective and highlighted by Northwestern in their last game is trapping Cockburn in the post when he has the ball. He had 6 turnovers in that game and the Scarlet Knights are most dangerous defensively when they are able to swarm as a team and are active with their hands. They’ll have to be careful not to get called for unnecessary reach-in fouls, but Cockburn is susceptible to pressure on the ball. It will also be crucial not to take risks at the cost of giving up open looks from behind the arc. Rutgers has to stay connected defensively and force Illinois to take contested shots.
The Illini committed 20 turnovers against Northwestern and have been just average this season with a 18.8% turnover rate (183rd). Curbelo is turnover prone and can be forced into bad decisions. Jalen Miller could be key off the bench with his on the ball defense. On the flip side, Illinois has a defensive turnover rate of only 15.4% (328th), so Rutgers needs to be smart with the ball and not rush things.
During this three game winning streak over ranked foes, Rutgers is outscoring opponents 38-5 in transition. Huge development in an area they really struggled in to start the season. Illinois is really good defending teams in the halfcourt, so getting out on the break will be key. It hasn’t just been off of turnovers as RU is looking to run off of defensive rebounds as well. The more they can get out in transition, the less of a factor Cockburn will be.
A key offensively will be Paul Mulcahy’s ability to get into the paint tonight. It will force Cockburn to either help and allow Mulcahy to find Omoruyi near the rim, or he’ll continue to get good looks himself. The two man game with Mulcahy and Omoruyi has been really effective of late and look for them to run the high screen to get Cockburn away from the rim to create more space to drive.
Ron Harper Jr. really struggled with Da’Monte Williams in the first matchup. He needs to get downhill to the rim and be more active rather than hang along the perimeter. Rutgers needs him active on the glass in this game too. RU is 7-0 this season when Ron scores 20+ points and to beat a team as good as Illinois, he likely needs to have a big game. I also think this is a game Mawot Mag can be a factor on both ends of the floor.
How Rutgers defends Plummer and Frazier will probably be with Geo Baker and potentially Caleb McConnell, but he’s much taller than the Illini guards. There is no natural matchup for him. To maximize his disruptiveness, expect Steve Pikiell to continue to mix up defensive looks with some halfcourt zone and fullcourt pressure.
The x-factor just might be from the foul line tonight and while both teams are shooting an almost identical number on the season, Rutgers is shooting an amazing 79.8% from the charity stripe over its last 8 games (95-119). The Scarlet Knights can’t be passive and settle for jumpers the way they did in the first meeting.
Starting the game with a high level of defensive intensity like they did the last three games has helped avoid slow starts offensively as well. The players have spoken about learning to play a complete 40 minute game and they absolutely must do that once again tonight. Getting Harper Jr, Baker and Mulcahy to the foul line by attacking the rim could make a huge difference. Finishing near the rim is obviously important as well and something that teams struggle to do against Illinois. Conversely, the Illini have been struggling from three in the second half of games. Ride the emotional wave early, stay connected defensively and keep the crowd in it. If they do that, Rutgers can keep the good times rolling with a program record fourth consecutive game with a win over a ranked foe.
For this game, I selected “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire. One of my favorite bands in part because they are constantly evolving. The same can be said with this Rutgers team.
The past couple of weeks has been as a remarkable a stretch this program has ever had in the regular season. The opportunity to add to it tonight is there and a win would continue to catapult Rutgers into NCAA Tournament contention. With a road trip to No. 5 Purdue on deck this weekend, protecting their homecourt and keeping their focus on this one game is hugely important. This team is maturing and seems to have mentally clicked with their approach. They should be fired up to have a chance to avenge their worst loss of the season and do it in front of their fans on a night of a blackout.
Keeping their composure and mindset on “everything now” by taking it possession by possession has led to their recent success. They could easily play well and lose, Illinois is that good. Controlling what they can control and giving themselves a chance to pull it out in the end is the key.
The song ends with “The ashes of everything now. And then you’re black again. Can’t make it back again. From everything now.”
What happened in November and early December happened, but it doesn’t matter now. Rutgers controls its own destiny in the sense that if they keep winning, they won’t be denied. Momentum is on their side and really that is everything now. Keeping it going is the challenge tonight and they can do that by staying true to what’s gotten them to this point. Relentless team defense, sharing the basketball and each player knowing their roles.