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The Illini need to find their mojo at Rutgers

Difficult circumstances notwithstanding, a promising season hangs in the balance as the Illini head to Piscataway

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illini fans were relieved to find out that guard Ayo Dosunmu suffered no structural damage to his left leg after he suffered a scary injury in Tuesday night’s heartbreaking loss to Michigan State. What this means for Ayo’s return remains a mystery. But, the Illini (16-8, 8-5) are in the middle of a renaissance season in Brad Underwood’s third year in Champaign. The renaissance, however, has stalled as the Illini have suffered three consecutive losses-at Iowa, and Maryland & Michigan State both at home. So, a road trip against a Rutgers’ (17-8, 8-6) program in the middle of their own uplifting season looms large to maintain the momentum the Illini have built this season.

First matchup

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini won the first match-up against Rutgers 54-51 on January 11th in Champaign. In that one, the Illini shot 28.6% from the field but a late offensive surge, triggered by Andres Felizwho had all eight of his points in the second half— help the Illini grind out the win.

The game was excruciating, ugly, and played in a style favorable to Rutgers, but the Illini prevailed — a positive sign given how well Rutgers has played this season and how stubborn Underwood was in his first two years at adjusting his style to grind out wins.

Cockburn, Feliz, Frazier must make up for the loss of Dosunmu.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Ayo Dosunmu, not just from a stats perspective but also from a synergistic perspective, cannot be understated.

When Dosunmu is playing well, he draws the attention of opposing defenses, which in turn opens opportunities for Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz. With this dynamic in mind, the Illini are usually in good shape in one way or another when Ayo is playing well, as he either controls the game himself or allows his teammates to do so.

Donsumu averages 15.8 points per game, but as evidenced by his 3.3 assists per game, his ability to raise the level of play of Cockburn, Feliz, and Frazier is probably his greatest asset to Illini basketball. If Donsumu is out against Rutgers — as many suspect — then the aforementioned trio must pick up the slack, not only in scoring but in distributing and in making sure the offense flows. Therefore, Feliz, who averages 2.8 assists per game, should be looking to get at least four assists while Frazier, who averages 2 assists per game, should be looking for at least a few more himself. Cockburn, on the other hand, needs to pick up the slack in scoring. He averages 13.7 a game so scoring somewhere in the 18- to 20-point range would be ideal for him against Rutgers

Avoid playing at Rutgers’ pace

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As evidenced by their first match-up against the Illini, the Scarlet Knights love to play a slow/grind-it-out pace. Rutgers, according to KenPom, is a middling 81st in offensive efficiency, but a rugged 10th in defensive efficiency and snails-paced 224th in adjusted tempo. This means Rutgers works to slow down possessions and relies on its defense to keep it in games. The Illini simply need to get out and run whenever they get a chance. Otherwise, they will find themselves playing the way Rutgers wants to.


Illinois 61, Rutgers 57.