Illinois is a great basketball team, maybe they’re even at the top of the Big Ten. They feature a great defense, a high-powered offense, and are well-coached. Regardless, Rutgers should not have lost by 18. For the most part, the Scarlet Knights were uninspiring and, save for the final 10 minutes of the first half, didn’t challenge the Illini at all this evening. Six thoughts:
Rebounding Issues are a MAJOR Concern: Rutgers was outrebounded 55-27, and at the end of the day, it’s almost impossible to win conference games getting doubled up on the glass. While it hasn’t been quite this bad every game, the Scarlet Knights have struggled on the boards all season. Part of that is due to replacing Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell, who are both 6’6+, with smaller guards, but Rutgers seems to be getting out toughed in the paint, something that hasn’t been an issue since before Steve Pikiell took over in Piscataway.
Getting Austin Williams Back is Huge: The New Jersey native was far and away Rutgers’ best player tonight. He provided a huge spark in the first half, coming off the bench to score 7 points and ignite a run that cut the Illinois lead to 5 at halftime. He played fast and strong from the moment he checked in, converting a great 3-point play the old-fashioned way. Williams finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal, and figures to continue to be an even bigger part of the rotation as he works back from injury.
Rutgers Lacks a Number One Defender: Caleb McConnell won back-to-back Big 10 DPOY awards the last two seasons and losing him has taken a big toll on the Scarlet Knights’ defense. In past years, McConnell took on the top offensive players in the conference game in and game out, but today, when Terrence Shannon Jr. came to play, no one on Pikiell’s squad could stop him. He torched Rutgers for 23 points and 10 rebounds and overpowered every defender that was thrown at him. The Scarlet Knights are still waiting for the return of Mawot Mag though, and he very well could be the lockdown guy that they need.
Shot Selection on Offense: Rutgers made just 20 of their 60 shots from the field today and finished 9 of 23 on layups. These poor shooting numbers are partially due to the Illini’s defense that ranks tops in the country in 2-point shooting percentage, but shot selection also plagued the Scarlet Knights. The guards did a good job of getting to the rim but instead of kicking it out for a better look, they took several heavily contested layups. The ball movement on offense was also lackluster which contributed to taking bad shots late in the shot clock. Rutgers has good shooters on this team, they need to find them for open shots.
The Freshmen Continue to Impress: Both Gavin Griffiths and Jamichael Davis turned in solid performances against Illinois tonight. Griffiths scored 8 points and made a few impressive shots including an impressive stop-and-pop shot over a defender at the free-throw line. Davis scored just 3 points on 1 of 6 shooting, but his all-around game was extremely impressive once again tonight. He finished with 3 boards and 2 assists and was the only Rutgers player to finish with a positive plus-minus as the Scarlet Knights were +6 when he was on the floor tonight. These two will only get better with time, and it should be exciting to watch them develop as the season continues.
Rutgers Needs Mawot Mag Back, Badly: Rutgers lost by 18 at home tonight, something that rarely ever happens, but (per Jerry Carino) the Scarlet Knights are 0-4 in Big Ten Games at the RAC since losing Mag and have lost all four by double digits. He’s the toughness that Rutgers is missing and will provide an immediate boost to struggles defensively and on the glass even before he shakes off the rust. He went through warmups before tonight’s game, and, with any luck, he’ll return before the rest of this important December stretch.