Illinois rolls past Rutgers behind Nunn, Hill

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In Illinois’ 66-54 win over Rutgers Tuesday night, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn did what they’ve been doing for almost the entire Big Ten season. 

They carried the Illini from start to finish.

Hill had 15 points, Nunn had 21, and the sophomore studs accumulated their points in a variety of ways. They attacked the rim, exposing the Scarlet Knights’ (10-14, 2-9 Big Ten) porous defense. And when Rutgers packed the lane, Hill and Nunn made them pay from deep. The pair finished a combined 13-29 from the field and buried four timely 3-pointers between them. 

Nunn and Hill were great, but several teammates filled the stat sheet nicely around them as well. Ahmad Starks and Leron Black scored 13 and 12 points respectively, and both did so in an efficient manner. Starks and Black shot a combined 10-16 from the field and played their roles exceptionally well.

For the first time in conference play this season, Illinois (15-8, 5-5) met little resistance from its opponent and improved to 11-1 at State Farm Center on the year. The Illini took control of the game late in the first half when they opened up a double-digit lead and pretty much traded baskets with Rutgers from there on out. Illinois led by 17 at one point and kept the Scarlet Knights at arm’s length until the final buzzer. 

Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack are good players (combined 33 points), but Rutgers didn’t have much firepower beyond those two. The Illini were able to sit in a 2-3 zone for a good part of the game, allowing Rutgers’ three-point shooting woes (ranked No. 13 out of 14 Big Ten teams) to take over. The Scarlet Knights were four-of-18 from deep on the evening. 

Illinois did occasionally press the issue with a full-court press zone, but did not have to work extremely hard on the defensive end. That should benefit the Illini’s legs as they travel to Michigan State on Saturday. 

Tuesday’s victory wasn’t especially eventful. The sparse crowd was limited to a murmur for most of the night, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Illinois’ more seasoned ticket holders snoozed in their seats due to the 8:30 p.m. start time. But it was an essential game, as the win allowed the Illini to get to .500 in the conference and win back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 27. At 5-5, Illinois is right in the middle of the Big Ten pack, elbow-to-elbow with several other NCAA bubble teams. 

Now the real fun begins. Illinois endured its gauntlet stretch of the schedule, when it opened the conference season with four of five away from home. A softer portion of the schedule followed and allowed the Illini to claw back to the middle of the pack, as four of their last five were played in the friendly confines of State Farm Center. And while the games ahead aren’t overwhelmingly intimidating, all eight of them pose challenges to some degree and will be crucial in determining Illinois’ postseason fate. 

There are so many unknowns for Illinois as the home stretch of the season looms. Leading scorer Rayvonte Rice and shooting guard Aaron Cosby are wild cards. They’re both still indefinitely suspended by Illini head coach John Groce, and they might still be injured as well. Their situations are murky, and even when their suspensions are lifted (which I bet will happen before one of the next two games) there’s no guarantee either will be immediately effective coming off injuries. 

In the month since Rice has been out, Illinois has transformed into a new-look team and gone 5-3 in his absence. I don’t think the Illini are a better team without Rice, but there’s no telling how his return to the lineup will affect the offensive flow and identity Groce has built. 

As soon as they’re reinstated, Rice and Cosby will provide instant depth for a team that desperately needs it. It remains to be seen if the team can gel as a whole with those two returning, but the Illini will be a dangerous team if they absorb the additions in stride. 

The Spartans await on Saturday afternoon, and every game is of utmost importance from here on out for NCAA tournament hopes. Such is the life of a bubble team. 

As the season winds down, the intensity turns up. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.