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The Illini are starting to look the part again

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An early message was sent Friday night.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini tipped off Big Ten play Friday night with a 86-51 blowout win over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in Champaign. In the lead-up to this game I mentioned that no Big Ten game is easy. And while the overall sentiment may be true...Illinois breezed through this one. An undermanned Rutgers squad looked more like a Drexel or an Arkansas State than a team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last year.

At half, the Illini led by 20. At the under-12 timeout, Illinois led by 26. The Illini would stretch the advantage to as many as 35, even after Brad Underwood emptied his bench in the final minutes.

The Illini finally looked the part — even without Andre Curbelo.

What Went Right

Well...pretty much everything. Illinois shot 48.5% from the field (32-66), including 12-33 from beyond the arc. The Illini made 10-of-11 free throw attempts, outrebounded Rutgers 47-33, and scored 19 points off 14 turnovers. A stingy Illini defense limited the Scarlet Knights to 31% shooting.

Illinois won by 35 with Kofi Cockburn acting as its third-leading scorer. Kofi notched yet another double-double with 13 points & 15 rebounds. His presence was felt even though his offensive impact was minimized a bit. But it was great to see Cockburn passing out of the post and trying to set up teammates.

Alfonso Plummer continued his heater, pouring in 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting. During Illinois’ 4-game winning streak, Plummer has scored 96 points (24.0 PPG) and shot 19-of-39 from long range. The Utah transfer is brimming with confidence, and he has helped ignite the Illini offense.

Jacob Grandison was ultra-efficient Friday night. Grandy tallied 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting in a mere 18 minutes. The trio of Coleman Hawkins, Trent Frazier & Da’Monte Williams combined for 21 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists, and 6 steals.

What Needs Work

Based on this game? Not much. But we still have yet to see the Fighting Illini at full strength at any point this season. The offense has flowed much better without Andre Curbelo, but we can’t pretend that he won’t be instantly inserted into the lineup once healthy. And once this team is whole Brad Underwood can finally begin to solidify his rotations and substitution patterns. Some of this has already begun to be sussed out, but some roles are still undefined.

The Illini can get away with some of the careless plays or ill-advised shots with a 30-point lead, but there still needs to be some tightening up. As we have previously noted, this team is beginning to establish its identity, and there’s more than enough time for Illinois to look like the contenders they should be.

They took a big leap Friday night. Let’s keep on jumping.