Rutgers vs Illinois Preview
Rutgers (15-9, 9-5 CONF) vs 12 Illinois (18-6, 11-3 CONF)
Wednesday February 16, 2022
Tipoff 7:00 PM ET, Airing on BTN
The Scarlet Knights may have the best resume in all of college basketball over the past 10 days, notching three straight wins against ranked teams. The wins at the Jersey Mike’s Arena against #13 Michigan State and #16 Ohio State made a statement that Rutgers wants to keep playing come mid-March. A road win at 14 Wisconsin solidified that if Rutgers can continue to win at home, they have a real shot at an at-large tournament bid. If Rutgers wants to keep their win-streak alive, they will have to defeat an Illinois team that has won five out of their last six, with their only loss during the stretch coming at Purdue.
Jersey Mike’s Arena
To many Rutgers students and alumni, Jersey Mike’s Arena will forever remain “The RAC”. The name of this building, however, is the least of the Fighting Illini’s worries. Whatever you want to call the building that the Scarlet Knights call home, it is going to be loud tomorrow night. The Scarlet Knights have won 9 out of their past 10 in Piscataway, including the two ranked wins in the past 10 days and an upset of #1 Purdue in December. Rutgers historically plays better at home, so a Scarlet Knights team that is coming off an electric win on the road is a scary sight for the Illini. Rutgers is certainly not perfect at home, as they dropped a game to Maryland in Big 10 play and lost to Lafayette in the early part of the schedule. But right now, I’m not sure that there’s an opposing team in the nation that’s begging to play at the JMA. If Rutgers can get the crowd into the game early, there is no limit to what Geo Baker and the Scarlet Knights can accomplish on Wednesday night.
Geo Baker is Back
After putting up 0 points in an overtime loss to Northwestern, Geo Baker certainly had his fair share of critics. However, the Rutgers captain did not allow the poor performance to translate into future games and was a key contributor in the past three wins. Since the Northwestern loss, Baker is averaging 16.7 points and 4.7 assists. When Baker plays well, it completely opens up the Rutgers offense. Defenses have enough to worry about with the Mulcahy-Omoruyi pick and roll, as well as Ron Harper Jr.’s scoring ability. When you add in Geo Baker knocking down threes and driving past defenders, Rutgers doesn’t look like the defense-first team that it was built to be. Expect Rutgers to ride the hot hand and get Geo Baker involved early and often.
The way that Johnny Davis, the number three scorer in the Big 10, was neutralized in Rutgers’ victory at Wisconsin was extremely impressive. Now, the Scarlet Knights are given the task of containing the number two scorer in the Big 10, Kofi Cockburn. If Rutgers wants to stop Cockburn, they will need to bring double teams right from the opening tip. I’m not sure if there is any college player who could guard Cockburn in the post 1 on 1, so Rutgers will have to use its length and defensive instinct to fluster Cockburn. The Illini recently played 2 close games against Northwestern, a team that they should have no problem rolling over. However, in those two games Kofi averaged 5 turnovers. If Rutgers can put the pressure on the 7’0” Junior, they should be in a good position to extend their ranked team win streak to four.
When these two teams played earlier in the season, Illinois annihilated the Scarlet Knights in Champaign, Illinois. In the 35-point blowout, Rutgers shot just 30.9% from the field and got out-rebounded 47 to 33. Many things have changed since that game. The Scarlet Knights returned Geo Baker from injury, Paul Mulcahy emerged as a scorer, Caleb McConnell started utilizing an unstoppable fadeaway baseline jump shot, Cliff Omoruyi has gained more experience as a starter in the Big 10, and the weight of carrying the scoring has been lifted off Ron Harper Jr.’s shoulders. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, not a lot of things have changed in Champaign. The Illini have continued to roll and show no signs of stopping. The key to the game for Rutgers will be securing defensive rebounds. This game has the feel of a gritty, hard fought win in Piscataway, where the Rutgers guards crash the boards and get in transition. I predict that come 9:00 Wednesday night, the Scarlet Knights will be one step closer to going dancing come March.
Final Score Prediction: Rutgers 76– Illinois 71