Rutgers and Illinois are standing tall in early Big Ten Conference play. Saturday’s matchup in Champaign spotlights two teams coming off key conference wins.
TV schedule: Saturday, January 11, 12:00 pm ET. Big Ten Network
Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Illinois
Rutgers Basketball celebrated their victory over 20th ranked Penn State on Wednesday night. The eleven-point Geo Baker-less win sent the Rutgers Athletic Center crowd into a tizzy and provided Steve Pikiell’s program with the media buzz that comes your way when you knock off an AP top 20 ranked team.
That same Wednesday evening, the Illinois Fighting Illini left the memories of fifteen straight losses to the Badgers on the Kohl Center hardwood, securing a one-point win over a program they hadn’t beaten since 2011.
Like a Spaghetti Western, Rutgers and Illinois face-off at high-noon Saturday EST. Who are the key players to watch out for? Where can you watch or stream this game? Here is my preview for this under-the-radar conference matchup between two top-five Big Ten teams.
Rutgers Basketball: Currently sits in third place in Big Ten
The sub-heading above this sentence isn’t a typographical error. Rutgers sports a flashy 3-1 conference record with wins over #20 Penn State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. The only conference loss the Scarlet Knights have suffered is at the hands of league-leading Michigan State, where they dropped a 12 point contest in the teams Big Ten opener. Overall, Rutgers’ record is 12-3 with losses to aforementioned Michigan State, Saint Bonaventure and the University of Pittsburgh. The Scarlet Knights decimated #22 Seton Hall, in an in-state rivalry game on December, 14. So, how has Rutgers earned so many W’s, so early in the conference season?
Rutgers is doing it with a stingy defense. A quick look at the B1G Conference stat sheet reveals that Rutgers is in the top five of the following defensive categories: scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, rebounding defense, steals and defensive rebounds.
Rutgers is second behind Illinois in Offensive Rebound percentage with a 32.2 percent average through four games. In their three conference wins, they have dominated the points in the paint category outscoring Wisconsin 42-28, Nebraska 52-24 and Penn State 42-20. These are all high percentage shots that can sustain or extend a lead. Rutgers depends on these shots because they are dead-last in the conference for three-point field goals made.
— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) January 8, 2020
Players to watch
#42 Jacob Young is a speed demon with lethal moves in transition. With Jamari Wheeler sidelined with foul trouble, Young’s speed was difficult for Penn State to handle. In his twenty-three minutes of action, Young was the Scarlet Knights second-leading scorer tallying 13 points, two steals and four defensive rebounds off the bench. #22 Caleb McConnell, #15 Myles Johnson and #1 Akwasi Yeboah all crash the glass with reckless abandon. Last but certainly not least, #24 Ron Harper, Jr. is the team’s floor leader while Geo Baker recovers from a thumb injury.
Fourth place Illinois has beaten Michigan, Wisconsin, and Purdue
With a 3-2 conference record, head coach Brad Underwood has his Illini team sitting right behind Rutgers at #4, in the Big Ten Conference. The Illini’s losses have come against #4 Maryland and #14 Michigan State, while they have grabbed wins against #5 Michigan and Purdue at home and a hard-fought road win over Wisconsin, at the Kohl Center.
Similar to Rutgers, the Fighting Illini rank in the upper-tier of many Big Ten statistical categories.
- #1 in scoring defense, #3 in field goal percentage defense
- #2 in 3-point field goal percentage defense, #3 in rebounding offense
- #4 in rebounding margin, #4 in offensive rebounds, #3 in defensive rebounds
- #1 in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage
Players to watch
Sophomore guard #11 Ayo Dosunmu has turned it up a level for his head coach. During the Wisconsin post-game press conference, Brad Underwood stated that Dosunmu, “Has got what you can’t coach.” The guard is averaging fifteen points and three assists per game and he’s shooting 77.5% from the free-throw line. Dosunmu sealed the win on this shot, courtesy of Twitter and the Big Ten Network.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 9, 2020
Freshman center #21 Kofi Cockburn is seven feet tall and has started every game for the Illini. Overall, he is averaging fifteen points and nine rebounds per game. His length will be a key factor in neutralizing Rutgers’ frontcourt play along with six-foot-nine inch forward sophomore, #15 Giorgi Bezhanishvili.
Alan Griffin wears number 00 for the Illini. The six-foot-five sophomore guard is Brad Underwood’s only reliable threat from three-point range averaging 40.1 percent. He will need to connect from long-range to stretch the Rutgers’ defense and create driving lanes for Dosunmu.
Overall, this should be an exciting matchup of two hard-nosed, physical teams. If you’re a fan of physical, defense-oriented basketball, this is your high-noon ticket.