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Know Your Opponent: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers is good. Again.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, No. 13 Illinois looks to earn its second win over a ranked opponent against No. 19 Rutgers. This will be their only meeting this year, which makes it all the more important for both squads.

But, as we all know, this game is bigger than just two ranked Big Ten teams playing. This is Illinois. And Rutgers. Yeah you know it, this is Illinutgers.

Last Season

Last year, Illinois beat Rutgers at State Farm Center 54-51, but lost to the Scarlet Knights 72-57 at the Rutgers Athletic Center. This loss came without Ayo Dosunmu, who had hurt his knee the previous game. The Illini’s leading scorer that game was Alan Griffin, who scored 14 on 3-of-11 shooting. Ron Harper Jr. dropped 27 points on the Illini, hitting 11-of-14 and going 5-of-o5 on three-point attempts.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers
Ron Harper Jr. scored 27 points against Illinois last season in Piscataway.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

In his fourth season, head coach Steve Pikiell led Rutgers to a record of 20-11 (11-9), which tied them for fifth place in the Big Ten. Notably, the Scarlet Knights went 18-1 at the RAC, with their only home loss coming to Michigan. The RAC seemed to get rowdier with every win in Rutgers’ best season since the 80’s. The Illini are thankful that there won’t be any fans in attendance on Sunday.

Players to Watch

Rutgers returned five of their six top scorers from last year, so expectations were high for them coming into this season. Harper Jr. – who’s 6’6” and 245 lbs. – has been dominant so far, racking up 23.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, and 2.8 APG on 50.0% from beyond the arc. The matchup between Harper Jr. and Dosunmu on Sunday will be front and center, but the battle in the paint will be more interesting from a strategical point of view.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Rutgers
Center Myles Johnson has 8.6 PPG, 9.0 RPG, and 2.4 BPG for Rutgers.
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The Scarlet Knights have two legitimate centers in freshman Cliff Omoruyi and junior Myles Johnson. These two will have the difficult but attainable task of guarding Kofi Cockburn. Steve Pikiell played both centers at the same time in a road win over Maryland on Monday, which he likely won’t be able to do against Illinois’ dynamic backcourt. However, that also means that Brad Underwood won’t want to play Kofi and Giorgi together, so either Giorgi or Coleman Hawkins will have to guard the 5 while Kofi’s on the bench.

The Knights feature four guards who can score. Their starting point has been Jacob Young, who’s hitting 41.7% on threes, while Montez Mathis has also played big minutes for the Scarlet Knights. Senior Geo Baker just returned from injury against Maryland, getting 13 points on 3-of-6 shooting from three.

What to Expect

Harper Jr. and Mathis should be able to guard pretty much anyone on the Illini, with the exception of Kofi, and maybe Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Young and Baker will guard a combination of Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, and Adam Miller. While Harper Jr. is the only one that can keep up with Ayo on offense, the Scarlet Knights will probably need the quicker Mathis to guard Ayo for most of the game.

Illinois needs Kofi to stay out of foul trouble because they don’t have anyone else, including Giorgi, who can consistently guard the 5. If Kofi can play 28-30 minutes and avoid fouling out, that’ll be enough time to let Ayo focus on getting out in transition. On the other hand, Rutgers has only shot 57% on FTs this year. So if the game is close and both teams are in the bonus, the advantage will go to the Illini, who are shooting 68% on their FTs.

Curbelo will be also be very important in this game. His ability to get to the basket provides scoring opportunities for him and the Illinois big men, but he’s averaging nearly three turnovers per game. If he can keep the turnovers down and feed Kofi throughout the game, the Illini should be able to get out of Jersey with a win.