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Scouting #Illinutgers2019

Illinois. Rutgers. This is Illinutgers.

Who doesn’t love acrostics?

R. Revisiting the last Illinois vs. Rutgers game

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers
Michael Finke scored 19 points against Rutgers last year
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois beat Rutgers handily the last time they played back in February 2018. The score was 75-62 at the RAC. In that game, Michael Finke and Aaron Jordan exploded off of the bench, combining for 34 points.

Rutgers shot 3-of-14 from the three-point line and missed 10 free throws in the game. Illinois played decently well, but it was more Rutgers missing shots and turning the ball over than it was Illinois dominating the way the score indicates.

U. Unheralded players on Rutgers who can give Illini fits:

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Rutgers
Ron Harper Jr. comes from a basketball family
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Two players stand out here, and either one can go off and contribute in a way. Transfer Peter Kiss is a guard who arrived this season from Quinnipiac. His scoring numbers have dipped some compared to when he was a MAAC player, but he’s the type of contributor who can do a little bit of everything. An ideal bench player who can fill in when needed, he can score, rebound and defend. There aren’t too many weaknesses in his game.

Another player, and a name Chicago Bulls fans will be familiar with: Ron Harper Jr., son of former Bulls player Ron Harper who played alongside Michael Jordan and company from 1994-99. Ron Harper the Younger is about 50 pounds heavier than his dad was — and he can legitimately play positions 2, 3 and 4. Harper averages about 20 minutes per game and can knock down the open three-pointer.

T. Tournament drought potentially ending?

Rutgers has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991. That’s almost three decades of basketball futility, which seems alarming considering the New York metro area usually has a wealth of high school/prep school basketball talent and Rutgers is just next door.

We’re not predicting Rutgers will make the NCAA Tournament, but this is certain: At this point in the season (early February) Rutgers has not been this close and this much in the Tournament conversation in at least 10 years.

Rutgers beat Indiana. Rutgers beat Nebraska. Rutgers beat Ohio State last month. Rutgers didn’t drop its game against Penn State. If the Scarlet Knights can remain in the top-10 in the conference come selection Sunday and win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, Piscataway will be Piscata-party-the-night-away (I tried).

G. Geo Baker is the thread that moves the needle

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Penn State
Geo Baker drives against Penn State’s Lamar Stevens.
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best point guards in the Big Ten, Geo Baker ranks in the top five in the conference in assists per game and in steals per game. He’s not quite as long as Ayo Dosunmu, but he’s built similarly and has that extra bounce looking to make the right play.

Ayo will need to smother Baker defensively as Rutgers’ transition game relies on Baker to shoulder the ball-handling and outlet passing load.

E. Eugene Omoruyi is Rutgers’ best overall player

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Rutgers
Eugene Omoruyi (No. 5) is a load in the post
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

He’s big and he moves well, leading his Rutgers team in points and rebounds. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds there’s not a lot Omoruyi can’t do. He’s not a shot blocker and is more of an offensive threat than a reliable defensive presence down low.

He runs the floor well on the break. He can knock down the midrange jumper he and has a wide array of post moves back to the basket.

R. Rebounding is a strength for the Scarlet Knights

Rutgers ranks in the top three in the conference in rebounds per game. Only Michigan State and Maryland are better than Rutgers when it comes to rebounding the ball. We’ve already mentioned Omoruyi — a player who’s extremely gifted athletically. He has help down on the glass, too.

Forward Shaq Carter and centers Myles Johnson and Shaquille Doorson each average at least 4.5 rebounds per game, and those three are part of a really strong and underrated front-court rotation for head coach Steve Pikiell.

S. Seriously, Rutgers most be taken seriously

Even before this season, Illinois fans know that Rutgers must be taken seriously. After all, Illinois’ loss to Rutgers in March 2017 by just three points after holding the lead for much of the game essentially forced the Illini out of NCAA Tournament consideration. It lost John Groce his job, and that loss is one of the most painful of my lifetime, and because of that we know just how fickle and pestering a matchup against the Scarlet Knights can be.

Fast forward to this season, Rutgers already has more Big Ten wins in 2018-19 than they have ever had in a season since joining the Big Ten Conference in 2014. This is the best Big Ten Rutgers squad in history, and their record proves that.

Welcome to #Illinutgers2019.

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