What Happened Last Year:
In what was a decisive game for Illinois’ NCAA Tournament hopes last year, the game came down to one possession. Simply put, the Illini choked. Some of you might remember this scene.
A loss to Rutgers is not okay, and it will never be okay even on the road. Illinois shot a whopping 35.6 percent last year on 21-for-59 shooting, just below half of which were three-point attempts (25). The Illini went into the game on the bubble and knew this matchup was a must win if they wanted to get Malcolm Hill & Co. to their first NCAA tournament. It was just Rutgers’ third win in conference play for a team that wound up finishing dead last. Overall, it was a poor performance from the Illini, and what was arguably the nail in the coffin for John Groce.
How Can Illinois Win:
The key to beating Rutgers this year will be to hold the duo of Deshawn Freeman and Corey Sanders in check. The pair scored 21 and 17, respectively, against the Illini last year. Sanders was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection last year, and the loss last year came at the hand of one Deshawn Freeman. This team will turn the ball over as shown by the 13.2 turnovers per game mark, almost a quarter of which come from Sanders. This team also gave up almost 70 points per game last year. We know that Brad Underwood likes to play fast, as evidenced by his previous tenures at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State. If the Illini buy into his system, they have the potential to run a lot of bigger teams out of the gym. Now, this Rutgers squad is not one of those vertically gifted squads by any means, but if Illinois keeps a good tempo, doesn’t force bad shot selection, forces Rutgers into turnovers and doesn’t waltz into New Jersey expecting an automatic W, then you could expect this contest to be one of the more winnable on the schedule this year.
How Can Illinois Lose:
Just because this is one of the more favorable games this year, it does not mean that it is a sure-fire victory, much like what happened last year. Illinois gave up 34 points in the paint to this team last year and countered with a terrible shooting performance. Rutgers does lose two starters in C.J. Gettys and Nigel Johnson, but they only pitched in a combined 11 points in last year’s loss. There are many scenarios for Illinois to drop this one again like settling for shots around the arc, or one of our sparse “big men” getting into early foul trouble. The only way I see this team having a do-over of last year is if they shoot 21-for-59 from the field or we turn the ball over.
Although Brad Underwood has yet to coach a game for the Illini, you have to feel a sense of relief since he took over the program. He brings a boast of maturity and quickness to an overall young and inexperienced ball club. I see Illinois winning both games this year. The Illini will win the first matchup handily at home, and end the season with a close victory on the road before starting conference tournament play.