Illinois was looking for its second consecutive conference win for the first time this season when they welcomed the Scarlet Knights to Champaign, and they got it in convincing fashion. The game began with some sloppy play from both teams, and Rutgers was looking to pull the upset when they went up 19-18 midway through the first half forcing John Groce to call a timeout. That seemed to ignite the spark the Illini needed, as they went on an 8-0 run to close out the half. Jaylon Tate dished out several beautiful assists and Malcolm Hill continued his strong play as of late and after a subpar performance against Penn State, Kendrick Nunn seemed to be back to his usual self, pouring in a game-high 21 points. Illinois shot 44 percent from behind the arc compared to the Scarlet Knights' mere 14 percent.
In the second half the Illini struck early and often to finally stick the dagger in Rutgers. Ahmad Starks hit several key three-pointers and Leron Black slammed home an emphatic dunk to extend the orange and blue lead to fourteen points, which would end up being the most the Illini would lead by all night. The game then seemed to hover between a ten and twelve-point lead for the Illini, and while Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack tried to instigate a Rutgers comeback, it never came to fruition.
Groce's squad would end up winning by twelve to get back to .500 in Big Ten play at 5-5. The Illini will now hit the road for the first time in two weeks to take on Michigan State in East Lansing. The status of suspended guards Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice is still unclear, but Illinois will need every body they can get to try and pull a win out of their hat against the Spartans. But before that, here are some observations from Illinois' win against Rutgers.
1. Next man up is working
It seemed like the sky was falling when it was discovered that Rice was expected to miss nearly two months with a hand injury, and things only got worse when Cosby was sidelined with an eye issue and then the two were subsequently suspended. But give credit to the remaining active players on this roster, because they've stepped up big time. Just like last season the tandem of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have proven to be huge for the Illini. Jaylon Tate and Ahmad Starks have learned to play their respective positions and have learned to play with one another, and both are better for it. Freshman Leron Black has stepped right into a starting role and hasn't wavered. Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert have even chipped in meaningful minutes. This team has had to develop a "next man up" mentality, and they've passed that test with flying colors. I'm very intrigued to see what the makeup of this team looks like when Rice and Cosby return.
2. The Scarlet Knights are who we thought they were
And we almost let them off the hook. Let's face it, Rutgers was not expected to win this game, and most Illini fans were hoping for a blowout. For the majority of the first half it was anything but that. Then Illinois (and the crowd) seemed to wake up and realize who they were playing, a Scarlet Knights team that was three games under .500 overall. They pushed the lead to eleven by halftime and by fourteen in the early portions of the second half. But then Rutgers made a run, and suddenly with just over two minutes to go it was an eight-point game. This was not a road the Illini wanted to go down. Luckily, the Knights missed some big three's when they counted the most and Illinois was able to make their free-throws to hang on to win. But I must admit I got a little tense when the lead was cut to single-digits late. They almost let that one slip away. Almost.
3. Jaylon Tate is the point guard of this team
What a transition it's been at the 1-position. Going into the year, Illinois' point guard was going to be senior leader Tracy Abrams. Then, when he went down with an ACL injury, the job fell squarely on the shoulders of senior transfer Ahmad Starks. Then, when Starks struggled mightily while in the starting lineup, the duties were once again handed down, this time to sophomore Jaylon Tate. Tate had a quiet freshman campaign, and while he showed flashes of excellence, it never really amounted to much. But now that he has welcomed this team's "next man up" mentality with open arms, he's greatly improved. Tonight he played 30 minutes and contributed six assists, two steals, and two rebounds. He's a legitimate Big Ten-quality point guard, and he's emerged as one of the commanders and leaders of this team.
4. Rebounding needs improvement
I'm looking at you, Nnanna Egwu. Not only was rebounding an issue in this game, but the center position in general has become a weak spot (at times) for the Illini. Now let's get one thing straight; I'm not an Egwu hater. Never have been. There are some members of the Illinois fan base that like to criticize him mercilessly, and that's not me. But I must admit I've been swayed towards a more neutral feeling for Egwu compared to my previous statements of extreme praise. He once again finished the game with zero points, and while he did make an impact on defense, he should be doing more than accumulating three fouls and five rebounds against Rutgers. The Illini actually out-rebounded the Knights by one, 28-27, but for the majority of the game Rutgers had the clear advantage, and a big part of that was a lack of production from Nnanna Egwu. He's a senior and there's eight games left in Big Ten play; it's put up or shut up time.
5. The Illini are the second-best free-throw shooting team in the nation
Many of you are already aware of this fact, but I think it's worth stating once again. The only team in the entire country that is making more free throws than the Fighting Illini right now are the Ole Miss Rebels, but they've attempted nearly 60 more than Illinois has this year. Tonight the Illini were once again cold-blooded from the charity stripe, knocking in all nine of their free-throw attempts to put the game away. This may seem like the kind of thing that most teams are just expected to be good at, but come Big Ten (and possibly NCAA) tournament time, having a positive quality like this will be absolutely crucial.