Illinois tips off the Big Ten season at home Friday night. Expectations for the Illini are still high, even after dropping out of the AP Top 25 this week.
Expectations have always been to win the Big Ten in March, and the road to the championship starts in December. After beating Notre Dame on Monday, Illinois has a chance to continue to right the ship and start the conference season off on the right foot.
The Scarlet Knights
Rutgers is coached by Steve Pikiell in his sixth season and the team is coming off its first tournament berth since 1991. Last year was a successful one by the Knights who made it to the quarterfinals in the Big Ten before losing to Illinois, as well as the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Final Four-bound Houston.
To finish the season, Rutgers was ranked 38th overall in the KenPom ratings, 82nd in Adjusted Offense, and 16th in Adjusted defense. Rutgers returns fifth-year senior Geo Baker and senior Ron Harper Jr., who had declared for the NBA Draft but opted to return for his final year for the Knights.
Rutgers comes into this game at 4-3 with a win over Clemson in the Big Ten-ACC challenge on Tuesday night. The Knights’ victory over Clemson is their only major conference victory this season, with three wins coming over Lehigh, Merrimack and NJIT to open the season. Rutgers proceeded to narrowly lose 3 straight games to Big East foe Depaul, Lafayette and UMass.
The Knights are averaging 67.7 points a game and a close margin of 4.7 points. While no conference team is a cakewalk, in every major statistic, Rutgers ranks below 200th in the nation.
Harper and Baker are the only players of note this year for the Knights. Harper leads Rutgers in scoring, averaging 16.1 PPG and 9.0 RPG while shooting 35.9% from deep. Baker, while third in scoring at 10.2 PPG, is heavily inefficient. Both of them play most of the minutes, both averaging around 34 minutes per game. Baker is however battling a leg injury and is questionable for the game Friday.
Outside of the two-star guards, Rutgers sophomore big man Cliff Omoruyi is averaging 12.0 points a game but will be no match for Kofi Cockburn.
Rutgers is a young team going through some growing pains. Trent Frazier will guard Ron Harper and will minimize the effect of the Knights’ most effective player. Like Illinois, Rutgers is also battling injuries on the bench, but lacks the depth and star power the Illini have.
It still is a Big Ten matchup and the Illini have looked sloppy to start the season. It very well could be a closer matchup than the stats tell us.