Happy Friday, everyone! It’s the second Friday of a new decade, and BOY IS IT NEW!
OK, so for everyone who somehow missed the joke, I coined #ILLINUTGERS in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible, at first mocking the football schedule that would see Illinois play Rutgers every year and using that hashtag to try to pretend like this was a BLOOD RIVALRY full of LUSTY HATRED. Then, as both teams dueled for the Big Ten basement, it seemed appropriate that such a game should be an annual tradition. The basketball series only added to it, with a loss at Rutgers infamously ending John Groce’s tenure at Illinois in 2017.
Here’s an extremely sarcastic salute to the greatest intersectional rivalry in the Big Ten. This list was poised to generate more lore, but Rutgers fired Chris Ash and Illinois somehow saved their football season, preventing the #ILLINUTGERS GRIDIRON ARMAGEDDON game where I believed the losing coach would be summarily fired.
A funny thing happened during all of this #ILLINUTGERS coverage, however.
Both schools built competitive men’s basketball teams while nobody was looking. (well, nobody was looking at Rutgers, anyway).
Despite losses to Saint Bonaventure and Pitt, Rutgers still boasts a 12-3 overall record thanks to a thrashing of Seton Hall and a 3-1 conference record so far. Illinois has a similar story, with an unfathomably bad loss to Missouri and an extremely stupid loss to Miami being redeemed by a victory over then-top-5 Michigan and a defensive dismantling of Purdue. Illinois could have added another top-5 victory if Brad Underwood didn’t forget what timeouts do at the end of the Maryland game.
So, they have similar stories. Both lost at Michigan State, both have scored a road win in conference play (Rutgers at Nebraska, Illinois at Wisconsin), both have beaten Wisconsin, and both just recently exorcised an important demon, with Illinois finally breaking a 15-game losing streak against Wisconsin and Rutgers finally earning some respect by beating a ranked Penn State team. As of Wednesday, both were the front-runners in Vegas for NIT champion.
Steve Pikiell has the enormous burden of an NCAA tournament drought that stretches back to before Penn State’s first season of Big Ten play, and it’s impossible to overstate the job he’s done. I went so far as to say this was a 10-10 team in Big Ten play this year. Meanwhile, Brad Underwood has assembled some of the best raw talent Champaign has seen in well over a decade. What was once a meme is now legitimately a game worth watching.
Illinois jumped to #29 in the Kenpom rankings after defeating Wisconsin, while Rutgers is just behind at #34. Kenpom loves Rutgers defensively, but also likes Illinois in that regard. The Pikemen are holding opponents to just 59.7 points per game, a mark good for 14th in the country. They did have a soft non-con schedule, but they also held Seton Hall to 48 and Penn State to 61, so that average isn’t likely to skyrocket. Illinois has also conspicuously improved on defense after abandoning the disastrous pressure look Underwood stubbornly clung two for the last two years, but the offense has suffered as a result of his attempt to play two centers at the same time.
Rutgers uses a 9-man rotation with guards Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. providing double-figure averages. The team is anchored by 6’10” sophomore center Myles Johnson, who averages just shy of a double-double per game at 9.7 points and 8.8 rebounds while providing 1.7 blocks. Despite what his name might lead you to believe, when a bill gets passed to Caleb McConnell’s desk, it’s often immediately shot home for three points. He is certainly no offensive graveyard.
Rutgers is one of the top rebounding teams in the country with the conference’s top rebounding guard in Harper. At 6.3 per game, he out-boards the likes of Matt Haarms, Nate Reuvers and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Illinois is a formidable rebounding force in their own right though, with five time Big Ten Freshman of the Week Kofi Cockburn averaging 9.1 to go with 15.0 points per game and five other players averaging upwards of four boards a night.
In what’s now certain to be his last season with Illinois, Ayo Dosunmu leads the Illini with 15.3 points per game while clocking over 31 minutes per contest. Hey, I don’t want it to be his last year at Illinois, but I can no longer deny it:
One of the biggest contributors to Illinois’ victory over Wisconsin was guard Alan Griffin, who remains mysteriously anchored to the bench at the start of every game. Underwood has been playing him more and more, and he’s proven to be the most reliable deep threat. The Illini have been running more free-flowing offensive looks over the last two games, a little more of the spread offense they ran the first two years. This has created a lot more opportunities, but only when Cockburn or Bezhanishvili sits with foul trouble. With both on the court, Giorgi is forced to play the 4, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a less guarded player on the perimeter.
Three Matchups To Watch
Johnson vs Cockburn
Both players have been crucial to their team on both ends of the court. This matchup will go a long way towards deciding this game. Johnson is giving up 35 pounds in this one, so he’ll have a hard time stopping Kofi’s alley-oop game.
Griffin vs Harper on the boards
I fully expect Griffin to play starter minutes even if it’s off the bench. The centers will get most of the defensive boards, but who’s going to crash the offensive glass? These are two of the best rebounding guards in the Big Ten
Underwood vs Pikiell
It’s cliche to list the coaches in a “matchups to watch” list, but given the rosters it’s absolutely the #1 matchup for me. Underwood has exactly two big men that see any minutes, but he insists on playing both at the same time at the beginning of the game. Pikiell has shown he’s crafty enough to adjust, and his roster has no glaring weaknesses. On the basis of talent alone, Illinois should win, but this is a very interesting coaching matchup.
I DON’T KNOW!
Usually, you want to go with the home team. It’s tough to win on the road in the Big Ten because the league refuses to do anything about the enormous home court bias of the officiating, thinking of it as some endearing quirk rather than a detriment to the integrity of the game. However, oddly enough, the two teams to whom this home cooking service doesn’t seem to extend are...Illinois and Rutgers.
So...SEE FOR YOURSELF!