Illinois and Rutgers meet again less than two weeks after 3OT circus

By Alex Roux

Tweet: The 3OT game two weeks ago was entertaining, but not something Illinois wants to repeat against Rutgers, writes @aroux94

Who’s ready to re-enact one of the best college basketball games of the season?

No, I’m not talking about last month’s triple-overtime thriller between No. 2 Kansas and No. 1 Oklahoma. I’m referring to another 55-minute hoops marathon, one with none of the stakes and all of the fun.

Actually, fun might be the wrong adjective to describe Illinois’ 110-101, triple-overtime win at Rutgers on Feb. 3,JT but it was definitely the wildest Illini game in recent memory. It had little defense, a lot of mistakes and some ridiculous stat lines, and now the two teams are set to go at it again Tuesday at State Farm Center.JT

If you’re wondering what the two teams have been up to in the under-two weeks since they met in Piscataway, it’s been nothing good. 

They’ve gone a combined 0-4 in a stretch that included Rutgers’ 12th straight loss this season and Illinois’ two-point defeat at the hands of in-state rival Northwestern.JT At this juncture, the Scarlet Knights are simply trying to avoid a winless Big Ten season with six games to play.JT

Luckily for Rutgers (6-19, 0-12 Big Ten),JT it still gets to play an awful Minnesota team twice. But after coming just a missed free throw shy of beating Illinois (11-14, 3-9),JT you know Scarlet Knights head coach Eddie Jordan has been using their most painful loss of the season as a motivator.

Illinois is a heavy favorite on paper at home, but anyone who has watched this team knows it lacks a killer instinct as a unit. A lot of that comes from not being able to out-rebound or effectively defend even inferior opponents with a roster ravaged by injuries. 

But it’s still fair for Illini fans to expect a comfortable victory over one of the worst teams in major college basketball.

Especially after news that Rutgers freshman Corey Sanders will miss four games due to suspension broke Monday afternoon. Sanders lit Illinois up for 39 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds last gameJT from the point guard position, and his absence will change Illini head coach John Groce’s defensive game plan dramatically on short notice. 

Without having to worry about such a dynamic facilitator out front, the Illini can shift defensive pressure to wings like Jonathan Laurent, Omari Greer and Mike Williams, who combined to score 56 points in the Feb. 3 meeting.JT

Illinois’ perimeter defense is still bad, and it probably won’t get much better this season. But the Illini should want to prove themselves after how Sanders exposed them last game in their second shot at the Scarlet Knights. Sanders is a talent that Rutgers will build around for the next three years, but no freshman outside of Ben Simmons should be putting up those kind of numbers — even against Illinois’ porous defense.

On offense, Kendrick Nunn needs to improve his production if Illinois hopes to be efficient on that side of the ball. He hasn’t been the same since injuring his hip two weeks ago against Wisconsin, shooting just 27 percent in his last three games.JT He looked better Saturday against Northwestern with 13 points on 11 shots,JT but he hasn’t surpassed his scoring average of 16.5 since dropping 24 on Ohio State Jan. 28. JT

Illinois asks so much of Nunn and fellow junior Malcolm Hill to carry the team, but it’s the unfortunate reality with their roster’s lack of depth.

It’s definitely unreasonable to expect a repeat of the basketball circus we saw the last time Illinois and Rutgers met, but that’s the only type of game that will get this matchup any attention outside of the teams’ most dedicated fans. State Farm Center will be a graveyard Tuesday night as it hosts a relatively meaningless game between the Big Ten’s twelfth and fourteenth place teams.

Still, this isn’t soccer, which means one team has to win. Groce can keep fans from sharpening their pitchforks if he avoids becoming Rutgers’ first conference victim in over a year.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94