Between injuries and losing records, Illinois-Rutgers is the saddest game of the year

By Alex Roux

Tweet: The banged-up #Illini versus a terrible Rutgers team might be the saddest game you watch all year, writes hoop columnist @aroux94

I think we’ve reached the abyss.

Everyone associated with Illinois basketball is about to experience exactly what college hoops irrelevancy feels like as the 10-12 Illini travel to 6-16 Rutgers for a Wednesday night matchup. A mid-week contest between two teams with a combined conference record of 2-16 might set a record-low for ratings on Big Ten Network, but the game must go on.

For the brave souls who do decide to tune in, this preview is dedicated to you. It might be the saddest basketball game you watch all year.

In a season where Illinois has sunk to depths unseen by this program for decades, losing to a dreadful Rutgers team would be a new low. The Scarlet Knights have been a bottom-feeder since they joined the Big Ten and figure to remain near the basement for the foreseeable future, so losing to them in any season is what every Big Ten team wants to avoid. Rutgers looks to be even worse than usual this season, so a loss Wednesday in the Illini’s first trip to Piscataway would be particularly unfortunate.

The Scarlet Knights have dropped nine in a row and only lost in conference play by less than 10 points once, in their Big Ten opener against Indiana. Illinois has an ugly 2-7 Big Ten record, but was at least competitive in most of its losses and projected to be a decent team if its roster was anywhere near healthy. Even on the road, a (relatively) healthy Illinois team should be able to dispose of Rutgers.

However, the Illini’s second-leading scorer Kendrick Nunn and starting forward Michael Finke suffered contusions in Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin, and it isn’t known if either will be fit to play Wednesday. Illinois head coach John Groce said Tuesday that it’s unlikely Finke will play with a sore knee and that Nunn is a game-time decision with a sore hip. Considering they’re two of the Illini’s four primary scoring threats, the Illinois offense will suffer if either one is unable to go. If both are in street clothes, the Illini are in serious trouble.

Comparing these two teams is tough without a clear idea of which Illini will suit up Wednesday, but I’ll give it a shot. Advanced metrics show that Illinois doesn’t do much of anything particularly well this season, besides taking care of the basketball on offense. Those same stats show that Rutgers literally does nothing well on offense or defense that would help them win basketball games, ranking in the bottom 30 percent of all 351 Division I teams in important statistical categories. Field goal percentage, opponent’s field goal percentage, turnovers, rebounding, you name it: Rutgers does it poorly.

To avoid becoming the Scarlet Knights’ first conference victim, Illinois has to avoid the multiple long scoring droughts it’s been susceptible to all season. If Illini possessions without points pile up, Rutgers could begin to smell blood on its home floor.

To evade those dreaded droughts, the Illinois offense must be more dynamic Wednesday. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill simply reaching double figures hasn’t been enough to carry the Illini; if those two don’t dominate, Illinois is hard to watch on that end of the floor.

Although the lineup we see Wednesday might potentially be even more shorthanded than usual, Groce has to shake up the offense regardless. I’d like to see less isolation ball — which often takes the form of quick, contested jumpers — and more sets designed to get 3-point threat Jalen Coleman-Lands and Nunn — if he can play — open looks off screens and ball reversals.

While Illinois is ranked almost 150 spots ahead of No. 275 Rutgers by basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, the Illini haven’t inspired much confidence in their chances of easily handling really bad teams. Both Chicago State and UIC are ranked in the bottom three percent of D-I teams, and both pushed the Illini to the brink of defeat in quasi-home games. Beating a similarly terrible Rutgers team on the road is far from a sure thing, especially with a banged-up roster.

Also, Rutgers almost certainly isn’t going to go 0-18 in the Big Ten this season. Even the most putrid teams usually squeak out a conference win or two, and the Scarlet Knights knocked off a Wisconsin team that would go on to win 37 games just last year. You better believe these Scarlet Knights are seeing Illinois as one of their best chances to avoid ultimate league play futility.

If Illinois beats Rutgers Wednesday, it means at minimum they will have taken care of business and avoided embarrassment. If they win without Nunn and Finke in the lineup, they deserve legitimate praise for overcoming an unheard of spate of injuries to defeat a Big Ten team on the road.

But losing to Rutgers will still be viewed by many as unacceptable, injuries or not.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

[email protected]

@aroux94