Illini host Scarlet Knights

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Illinois’ Malcolm Hill draws a foul during the game against Kennesaw State at State Farm Center on Dec. 27. Hill has been a strong asset to the team in the midst of injuries and suspensions, averaging 14.6 points per game.

Malcolm Hill knows not to overlook Big Ten opponents.

The Illinois men’s basketball team (14-8, 4-5 Big Ten) has already dealt with a loss to Minnesota, a team that was 1-6 in conference coming into its game against Illinois. So when Illinois plays Rutgers on Tuesday night at State Farm Center, both Hill and the Illini know not to ignore the Scarlet Knights (10-13, 2-8) just because of their conference record.

“They beat Wisconsin,” Hill said. “That says a lot, not only about them but our league. We can’t take anybody lightly.”

Although Rutgers has lost its last six games, the Scarlet Knights still have enough talent on the offensive side to beat Big Ten-leading Wisconsin earlier in the season.

Rutgers’ offensive production stems from seniors Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack, who head coach John Groce acknowledged for their shot-making ability.

“Mack and Jack, those two guys can really score the ball,” Groce said. “They have a gift for scoring the ball.”

While the Illini will have the hardest time shutting down Mack and Jack, who are the only Scarlet Knights to average double-figures in points, it may be Rutgers’ height advantage that proves to be the most challenging aspect for Illinois.

“They’re pretty big and really physical,” Hill said.

Rutgers starts three frontcourt players who are 6-foot-7 or taller and has two players 6-foot-10 or taller coming off the bench.

The Illini have played well against bigger teams this year, like Purdue, but Illinois hasn’t been as strong on the glass as Groce would like. Illinois is currently eighth and 10th in the Big Ten in terms of offensive and defensive rebounding, respectively.

“They’ve done a good job on the glass with that size,” Groce said. “We have not been particularly great on the backboard in the last couple games, and obviously we’re going to be tested in that regard tomorrow night.”

With both Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby suspended indefinitely, the Illini need solid contributions from sophomore starters Hill, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate in order to accomplish their goal of getting back to .500 in conference play.

“Knowing that we have some people to sit out due to injuries and people having to step up, it’ll be big to get to .500 and move forward,” Tate said.

Even though the Illini are on an emotional high after Saturday’s win against Penn State, Groce praised the team’s offensive improvements. Both Groce and the players know they have to continue to improve in order to play well against the remainder of their Big Ten opponents, starting with Rutgers.

“We’re shooting it well from three,” Groce said. “We’re moving the ball better, the ball’s sticking less. We’re doing some good things. I’d just like to clean up some of the little things that we can control.”

As Illinois ends its preparation for Rutgers on a shortened two-day schedule between games, Hill knows the Illini have to stay composed in order to string some conference wins together in hopes of furthering their NCAA tournament chances.

“We have to take every game seriously,” Hill said.

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.