The Fighting Illini return home to the State Farm Center after a tough two-point loss to Northwestern for a matchup with the Scarlet Knights. This is their second meeting in as many weeks; Illinois won the first game in triple overtime at the RAC, 110-101. We can only hope for an equally thrilling and lengthy contest this time around.
While both teams are seated near the bottom of the Big Ten conference, Rutgers might just be the worst power-five program, and they were dealt another blow this past weekend. The program announced that their best player, point guard Corey Sanders, was suspended for the game against the Illini. If you remember, he went off for 39 points against Groce's squad two weeks ago and the Illinois coach called him one of the hardest men to guard in the Big Ten. Groce won't have to worry about his defensive scheming for Sanders this time around, as a rules violation will have the point guard sitting out for the next two weeks. That means Rutgers will have to rely more heavily on upperclassmen guards Mike Williams and Bishop Daniels, who average 12.1 and 8.3 points per game respectively. The Scarlet Knights are coming off a road drubbing by Nebraska and a close home loss to Ohio State.
On the orange and blue side of things, losing by just one bucket on a controversial call was a tough way to end the weekend in Evanston, but the team certainly played well enough to win and there were several positives to take away from that game. Forward Michael Finke and shooting guard Kendrick Nunn finally appeared fully healthy, and Maverick Morgan certainly took another step forward with his efforts on the glass. Another performance like the one this past Saturday night should be able to produce a victory against this depleted Rutgers roster.
As we head towards March, another thing to keep an eye on is Big Ten tournament positioning. Obviously with the Illini out of postseason contention it doesn't matter as much as this season as it did in previous years, but the bottom four Big Ten teams have to play on the first day of tournament action, whereas everyone else gets a bye. If Illinois can close out the season with several additional victories, they can perhaps attain a seed more advantageous to their schedule. They currently sit in twelfth place.
John Groce Media Session
My Pick: The Fighting Illini were looking like a lock to win this game on paper before the Sanders suspension, and this now looks like an even bigger mismatch. With the home crowd behind them, the Illini will cruise to victory in one of the only matchups we'll see this season where the game is decided fairly early on. Will the Scarlet Knights ever win a Big Ten game? Illinois 84, Rutgers 56.
KenPom's Pick: Illinois 79, Rutgers 65 (89% W)
Let us know who YOU think is going to win in the comments below!