Yes, Rutgers. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that Greg Schiano had an incredible football program in Piscataway. Why can’t they have a good basketball team, too? Steve Pikiell is wondering the same thing, and this year may be a turning point for his team.
If you’ve paid a bit of attention to polls and college basketball pundits, Rutgers has been garnering quite a bit of notoriety for its play as of late.
Rutgers just beat a Top 25 team at home without its best player.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 8, 2020
Business tonight at Stuff Yer Face is going to be incredible. https://t.co/d135I5YCzW
Even without Geo Baker, Rutgers was able to knock off a ranked Penn State team (who is, by the way, having a great year of its own). Granted, this was a home game for the Scarlet Knights, but even wins such as this one are not easy to come by in the Big Ten.
Penn State is one of a few impressive wins for Pikiell’s squad this season. They beat Stephen F. Austin and blew out Seton Hall by 20 in the non-con, and are 3-1 in the Big Ten so far with wins over Nebraska, Wisconsin, and the Nittany Lions. Not too shabby.
Overall, Rutgers is 12-3 on the year and 11-0 at home. We’ll talk more about that later.
Players to Watch
Baker, the prolific scoring guard for Pikiell and the Knights, has been the center of Rutgers’ offense the past few years. The media tells us that he is sidelined indefinitely with a broken thumb sustained in a practice before the Nebraska game on Jan. 3, and he has since missed the last two conference games. Rutgers won both those contests.
That being said, it is unlikely he will not be sidelined when Rutgers comes to Champaign on Saturday. But, as our beloved Jon Rothstein has said many a time, this is not anarchy; this is just college basketball. Who knows if he’ll suit up or not.
Aside from the 6-foot-4 Baker, who was averaging 11.5 points and led the team with 52 assists in 13 games, Rutgers does have other scoring options. Perhaps the most important guy Underwood will need to hone in on is 6-foot-6 sophomore guard/forward Ron Harper Jr. Harper led the team with 22 points (which included going 12-for-12 from the free throw line) in the upset of Penn State. He’s an up-and-coming star in the conference.
Myles Johnson, another sophomore standing at 6-foot-11, will likely be the guy Giorgi and Kofi have to match up with during the game. He is third on the team in scoring behind Harper and Baker with 9.7 points per contest and also pulls down nearly nine boards per game. He’s listed at 255, which means Kofi has at least 30 pounds on him, but he will certainly provide some competition for Cockburn on the glass.
Harper is great moving to the basket and will be handful on defense, considering his height. Johnson likes to move to the post on the pick-and-roll plays, and guys like Jacob Young (6-foot-2 junior) and Akwasi Yeboah (6-foot-6 grad transfer) will provide some scoring when Harper is on the bench. Overall, even without Baker, this team is capable of scoring and distributing the ball.
This is going to be a grind of a game. Illinois had a difficult time with the Scarlet Knights when they visited Champaign last year, but were able to come away with the victory thanks to a heroic, record-setting day from Giorgi B. Just as this is a much different Scarlet Knights team, this is not the same Illini team that took the court last year. One might argue there has never been anyone as intimidating as Kofi Cockburn in the post, and the guard trio of Ayo, Trent and Andres is a college coach’s dream. Not to mention Giorgi still showing effectiveness in the post and Alan hitting deep threes.
That being said, I expect this to be quite the close game. Even if Baker is out, the Scarlet Knights still have plenty of scoring that can come from Harper, Young, Yeboah, and others. If there’s one thing the Illini have improved from last year, it is their defense. I expect that to work much better than it did against Rutgers in 2018.
If Alan and Trent can get open and hit their jumpers, Kofi takes care of business on the boards and Ayo keeps the ship running smoothly and limits turnovers, I think it is very likely the Illini can win this game. I loved the fight I saw in them at the Kohl Center on Wednesday; they never quit or let the game get out of hand, and they clearly wanted it more than the Badgers at the end. Don’t turn the ball over, keep moving on offense and the Illini can be 4-2 in conference.
Illinois 77, Rutgers 71