‘Every team’s gonna be coming for us’: No. 12 Illinois men’s basketball travels to New Jersey, takes on red-hot Rutgers


Cameron Krasucki

Guard Alfonso Plummer dribbles towards the hoop during the game against Rutgers on Dec. 3. The Illini will be heading to New Jersey on Wednesday for their game against the Scarlet Knights.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

When Illinois beat Rutgers by 35 points in its conference opener on Dec. 3 at State Farm Center, it seemed like these two teams would be heading for opposite ends of the Big Ten standings.

Though the No. 12 Illini currently sit atop those standings at 11-3, the Scarlet Knights are among the middle of the pack, and a run of three straight wins against top-20 teams has them just two games behind the Illini for first place at 9-5 heading into Wednesday night’s game.

“They’re playing as hard as anybody in the country,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “They’re really playing hard.”

Rutgers is dominant in its home gym, boasting a 12-2 record in Piscataway, beating Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State there thus far this season. 

The Illini have struggled there in the past, falling in each of the last two meetings in New Jersey, though Underwood does not view the arena as any different than other road venues, calling it “another gym.”

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“It’s another building; it’s another gym,” Underwood said. “The fans are right on top of you. It’s old as hell. The acoustics are dynamic; everything reverberates in there. The students are right there on you. You literally can’t hear; the players can’t hear me in a timeout.”

Led by All-Big Ten senior guard/forward Ron Harper Jr., who scored just five points back on Dec. 3 in Champaign, Rutgers has seen other players step up since that first meeting early in the season.

Senior guard Geo Baker did not participate in that game, while junior guard Paul Mulcahy has been a major factor in the Scarlet Knights’ three-game winning streak over the No. 13 Spartans, No. 16 Buckeyes and No. 14 Badgers.

Over that three-game stretch, Mulcahy has averaged 15 points and nearly eight assists while playing 35 minutes per game, and Underwood praised the Rutgers guard as a pivotal piece of the Scarlet Knight offense.

“We’ve seen the emergence of (Paul) Mulcahy turn into maybe one of the league’s best guards, in my opinion,” Underwood said. “He’s always been a guy that’s been very, very active and all over the court defensively and makes winning plays. We’ve seen him blossom into a terrific scorer here in the last five, six games for them.”

The Illini defense will have to be wary of Mulcahy, though they did a good job in the first matchup, holding the junior guard to four points on 2-11 shooting.

This Illinois squad has been known for its defense all season, and the likes of fifth-year seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have been two of the biggest reasons behind that trend. But with Rutgers’ three established shooters in Harper Jr., Baker and Mulcahy, the Illini will need graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer and forward Jacob Grandison to step up as well.

In each of the Illini’s two games, though, the offense has struggled in the second half, with Frazier, Williams, Grandison and Plummer combining for 12 points on 3-27 shooting in the final halves of play against No. 4 Purdue and Northwestern.

Underwood identified a decline in pace in the second half as a big reason behind the slumps, especially since Illinois took leads into halftime in both contests last week.

“Pace is a hard word to describe,” Underwood said. “For us, it’s not speed. It’s not shooting it quick. It’s not that. Pace is the movement in the half court, the cutting, the ball movement, getting into ball screens quicker, getting out of ball screens quicker, so the defense isn’t as stagnant.”

With the Big Ten schedule quickly coming to a close and with the conference and NCAA tournaments looming on the horizon, the Illini know they are the hunted. With a narrow lead atop the standings, Illinois is not focused on its record but rather its game-by-game performances.

“Just go out there and win, that’s all you can do; leave everything out there,” said sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins. “Just go out there, play hard every night. Every team’s gonna be coming for us, every team’s gonna throw their best game at us, so go out there, give it your all. We deserve one, too. We deserve a Big Ten title, so yeah, just go out there and win games.”



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