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No. 24 Rutgers looks to win at Illinois for the first time



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

No. 24 Rutgers men’s basketball (16-8; 8-5) will play it’s third game in a row away from the RAC on Saturday at Illinois (16-7; 7-5). The game will air live on FS1 at 2 p.m. ET. Although the Illini lead the all-time series 10-4, the Scarlet Knights have won three of the last five meetings. However, RU is 0-6 at the State Farm Center which includes a 35 point loss from last season.

This matchup features the top two defenses in the Big Ten. Rutgers remains No. 1 with a defensive efficiency rating of 95.6 in league play. Illinois is No. 2 at 98.6. They’re also the top two teams in two-point defense. RU is limiting opponents to just 43.4% shooting inside the arc. The Illini are allowing foes to shoot just 45.3%. The main difference is Illinois leads the league in block rate while the Scarlet Knights lead in steal and turnover rate.

Listed at No. 26 in KenPom, Illinois is No. 51 nationally in offensive efficiency and No. 18 in defensive efficiency. Rutgers is No. 17 overall, No. 123 in offensive efficiency and No. 2 nationally in defensive efficiency.

Pace will be key in this game. Illinois will look to push it in transition. They have two guards in Terrence Shannon Jr. (17.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 steals) and Jayden Epps (10.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists) who can get downhill and score off of iso situations. Matthew Mayer is a heavy volume shooter averaging close to six attempts from three per game and is shooting 38.1% from behind the arc. Coleman Hawking is an uber talented but inconsistent win while Dain Dainja is a solid big man inside. They aren’t particularly deep but RJ Melendez, Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris are capable reserves.

Illinois shoots 25+ three-pointers per game but are only shooting 31.7% as a team overall and just 29.5% in Big Ten play. Head coach Brad Underwood mentioned how Iowa shot well against Rutgers in meeting with the media on Thursday. Rutgers will need to close out shooters and have awareness of where Mayer is on the floor. Illinois does not swing the ball in the halfcourt like the Hawkeyes do and rely more on iso or spot up situations. They also have a 19.1% turnover rate which ranks 239th nationally.

The Illini have similar size and length to Rutgers. The key is when RU collapses the interior, not to get too far exposed by shooters. It makes sense to stick with their strategy and preferred style though as Illinois is shooting 55.9% from inside the arc overall and tops in league play at 53.4%. Cutting off driving lanes and forcing Shannon to pull up from mid-range would be ideal.

Rebounding will be key as well with Illinois in the top four on both ends of the floor on the glass. Rutgers has been really good with offensive rebounding but has struggled at times keeping opponents from grabbing boards off of the offensive glass. Second chance scoring and putback opportunities will be huge as Illinois shoots and defends the paint so well.

If Rutgers can force turnovers and run in transition, it can lead to some needed easy baskets. Illinois also fouls a lot and got burned in last week’s loss to Iowa. Tony Perkins kept attacking the rim and ended up making 15 of 16 foul shots in a 2 point victory. Attacking the rim won’t be easy, but Rutgers can’t settle for contested jumpers or get into a three-point shooting match with Illinois. Underwood’s team wants you to shoot over their length as it forces tough shots.

That being said, Cam Spencer, Aundre Hyatt, Paul Mulcahy and Oskar Palmquist need to look for their shot, but it needs to be within the floor of the offense. Dribble drives and kickouts will create space. The Illini are allowing Big Ten foes to shoot 34.9% from three in league action.

The more Rutgers can make it a grind and force Illinois to play longer, one shot possessions, the more the pace will be in their favor. The Illini are very talented but can get frustrated and undisciplined when they aren’t able to dictate the game. They also haven’t played in a week so they could be prone to forcing the action. RU needs to savvy and take advantage if that happens.

This is a game where the veterans need to lead. Paul Mulcahy had one of his worst games against Indiana. Sticking out his foot to trip Trayce Jackson-Davis in the final seconds was reckless and poor sportsmanship. He has to keep his emotions in check, be vocal with his teammates and run the offense in a smart way. Basically, exactly how he played against Michigan State in the second half last weekend. Looking to score and knife through the Illinois defense is needed. Making sure the ball is in the right hands, especially down the stretch is as well. I expect he’ll bounce back strong.

Cliff Omoruyi needs to have a big game and I like his matchup inside. He needs to be assertive in wanting the ball and also looks to control the glass as much as possible. Caleb McConnell needs to be his usual havoc wrecker on defense but needs to force the issue less on offense. When he does look to score, he needs to attack the rim rather than settle for jumpers. I do think he can effective driving and finding open shooters like Spencer and Hyatt. He needs to think in that regard more so.

I think the x-factor in this game is Derek Simpson. Pikiell has played him the final ten or so minutes in each of the last two games without Mawot Mag. Simpson made an impact as a scorer in both opportunities. He played to his strengths and in rhythm of the offense, while proving capable on the defensive end. His quickness could create issues for Illinois.

Defensively, Rutgers was much better in the second half against Indiana. Learning how to remain connected and getting back in transition is key. Their toughness and togetherness needs to show big time in this matchup. Defending without fouling is important as well, especially keeping the starters on the floor. Illinois is a poor foul shooting team, but the longer they are out of the bonus, the better.

This will be a challenging game for sure. It’s also a very important one in regard to the Big Ten standings. A win would put Rutgers no worse than second place by the end of the weekend. A loss and they’ll likely fall back into the pack. It wouldn’t be a major issue, as RU is favored in each of their last six games. However, it’s been a very difficult week. The starters looked a bit heavy after the loss of Mag in falling short at No. 18 Indiana. The team is now playing a third straight game away from the RAC and needs to dig deep.

“We have to battle back and it doesn’t get any easier here,” Steve Pikiell said after the Indiana loss. “We’re still on the road again. Three straight trips here on the road away from Jersey Mike’s. It’s not easy right now.”

For the song choice, I selected was “The Distance” by Cake. Rutgers needs a 40 minute effort on Saturday. They have to stare adversity straight in the eye and keep grinding. A loss isn’t terrible but a win would do wonders for this team’s psyche moving forward. It’s going to take contributions from all. As poorly as they played at times against the Hoosiers, they still almost one. If they can go the distance with a complete performance against the Illini, they can beat them. It’s a matter of playing to their strengths, keeping their composure and closing the game out the way they have shown they can.

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  1. pj43

    February 11, 2023 at 4:02 am

    At this point in the season the Rutgers offense is what it is – inconsistent. This could shape up to be an ugly defensive struggle. I have a feeling that this game will be won or lost at the foul line, i.e. who gets gets to the foul line first, who gets to the foul line the most & who converts the 1 & 1. We know that when Rutgers is on the road, the officiating is usually not “friendly”. Need I say more? Let’s just hope the team can somehow avoid leaving the outcome in the official’s hands.

  2. InPikeWeTrust

    February 11, 2023 at 4:38 am

    I’m afraid the first few possessions could dictate this entire game for us. I worry about Paul’s psyche. As we know, he is a very high-strung athlete who definitely struggles with some self-doubt at times. It’s been a stressful and difficult 4 days for the young man. He played poorly for his standards at Indiana and then the whole “tripping” incident. Ideally, the game after that performance would be in the friendly confines of the RAC and the Riot Squad could give him a proverbial hug. Unfortunately, he’s back on the road and that crowd will be merciless on Paul. RAC crowd would do the same with an opponent. So, if he gets off to a shaky start, the crowd will close in on him that much quicker. It could snowball fast.

    On the other hand, he’s seen it all and has always proven, just like this program, to be extremely resilient. I’m not a fan of this matchup without Mag to play Mayer (gotta figure Caleb checks Shannon) and Illini like to go small when Danja sits which will be difficult for Cliff. I can see Hawkins being better at defending Cliff in the post than Cliff is at defending him on the perimeter. Hope Cliff proves me wrong. Maybe Cliff can get some “and ones” and Hawkins can watch from the bench.

    I believe in this team, though. They absorbed multiple haymakers from IU and had a legit chance to win that game. Make it a rock fight and out-tough a team that was called out by their own coach earlier in the season for not being tough enough.

  3. thevinman

    February 11, 2023 at 4:32 pm

    I do understand that our veterans need to step up but I think the younger guys and less used guys who will get a lot more minutes will be the key to victory. That means more than just Simpson. We also need to let Spencer and Cliff be bigger parts of the offense. It seemed we abandoned getting the ball to Cliff in the second half of the Indiana game and Caleb forced way too may shots. As far as Mulcahy, if we get good Paul we win and if we get bad Paul we lose.

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