Offensive struggles continue in Illinois men’s basketball’s double-digit road loss to Rutgers


Photo courtesy of Illini Athletics

Guard Alfonso Plummer passes the ball during the game against Northwestern on Sunday. The Illini lose against Rutgers 70-59 on Wednesday.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

When Illinois’ offense gets hot, it’s among the best units in the Big Ten. Sitting third in the conference with 75.9 points per game, the Illini have a variety of weapons in senior guard Trent Frazier, graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer, sophomore guard Andre Curbelo and National Player of the Year contender and Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year junior center Kofi Cockburn.

When players don’t get in a rhythm, though, Illinois has struggled, an issue that has plagued the team in each of its last three games. 

The Illini have finished below that season average in those three games, falling at Purdue, 84-68, on Feb. 8, narrowly beating Northwestern in Champaign on Sunday, 73-66 and losing in lopsided fashion, 70-59, against Rutgers in New Jersey on Wednesday night.

Illinois fell behind early and relied on Cockburn to keep the game, scoring his team’s first seven points of the game. But when the big man was subbed out five minutes into the opening half with the Illini down 13-7, he returned over three minutes later with the visitors down 19-9, with junior center Omar Payne scoring the only points during that stretch.

Scoring 24 points in the opening 20 minutes, a total that tied a season low, Illinois headed into halftime down 33-24 despite Rutgers leading by as many as 12.

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A team that is known for its perimeter shooting, the Illini average 12.76 3-point attempts per half this season, making about 36.2% of those shots. 

They took 14 shots from deep in the first half on Wednesday, which would equate to an expected conversion of five makes. But Illinois made just one of its 14 attempts, which came on a Frazier triple with 35 seconds left in the half. 

“We were never in it and didn’t play very well,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “You’re not gonna win games when you miss your first 13 threes. I thought most of them were good shots, but when you don’t have the energy and the desire to want to work to win, the ball will never go in.”

Things only got worse over the first 12 minutes of the second half, with Rutgers taking its largest lead of the night, a 23-point advantage with eight minutes to play. The Illinois offense marginally improved, with graduate student guard/forward Jacob Grandison and Frazier both hitting treys despite the Illini deficit continuing to grow.

A late run from the visitors was too little, too late as 3-pointers from freshman guard RJ Melendez, Frazier and sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins, all of which came with under four minutes to play, helped Illinois cut its deficit but still lose by 11, 70-59.

“We didn’t bring the fight in the beginning,” Melendez said. “Last minute when we saw the little gaps and chances that we had, then (our shots) started falling, but it was just too late to start fighting by that time.”

Plummer’s struggles continued on Wednesday night. Leading in the Big Ten in 3-point field-goals with just under three per game, the transfer guard also sits second in the conference in 3-point field-goal percentage at 39.8%. 

Against Rutgers, Plummer failed to connect from behind the arc for just the third time this season, while his four attempts tied his third-fewest mark this year.

Both of Plummer’s field goals came on layups in the first half, and he has now gone 57 minutes of game time without a triple.

“We had wide-open shots,” Melendez said. “We just gotta make ’em.”

The road will not get easier for the Illini over their next few games, and they will travel to East Lansing to take on the No. 19 Michigan State Spartans on Saturday.



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