Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
December 3, 2021
During this eighth game of their season, Illinois (5-2) will take on Rutgers (4-3) at the State Farm Center in Champaign. It is Illinois’ first Big 10 matchup of the season. These two teams last played in March 2021 with the Illini having a decisive win over the Scarlet Knights, beating them 90-68 at Indianapolis.
They last met in Champaign in January 2020, with Illinois winning 54-51. Illinois leads the all-time series 9-1, and is 5-0 when playing in Champaign. Brad Underwood has prevailed over Rutgers in 5 of 7 matchups.
Coming into this game, Illinois has not had the non-conference slate that most were predicting. This has mostly been due to injuries and Kofi Cockburn’s suspension. Unfortunately for Rutgers, Cockburn will be playing in this matchup. In the four games since he’s been back, Cockburn has averaged 26.8 points per game (to lead the country) and 9.5 rebounds per game, with an impressive 70.7 field goal percentage. He’s also shown improvements from the free-throw line and as a passer. These were two big question marks coming in to the season.
The biggest question mark for the Illini is how they will fare in absence of Andre Curbelo. The pre-season all-conference player hasn’t played the last two games due to a concussion and lingering neck issues. How Illinois performs in his absence will fall heavily on Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier.
Plummer has played at a high level during Curbelo’s absence. He’s brought a much-needed spark to the offense and averaged 24 points over the past three games. That said, Plummer still needs to focus on making good decisions. He occasionally takes a wild heat check that can have a detrimental impact if it comes at the wrong time. Overall, however, the positives outweigh the negatives.
Frazier, on the other hand, had a bit of a rough stretch following an impressive performance at Marquette. The shoulder injury that has plagued him since the beginning of the season and the hyper-extended knee he suffered in the Kansas State game have definitely challenged his performance. Last game, he took a step in the right direction. While he didn’t have a great shooting day from deep, he was able to get a couple of buckets in transition and facilitate the offense, finishing with six assists. Importantly, even when he’s not having a great shooting day, Frazier brings leadership to the court.
Many approached the season with the expectation that Cockburn would be competing for national player of the year. His play so far would support this. Rutgers’ second year freshman, Cliff Omorui, is going to have to match up with Cockburn for most of the minutes. As a freshman he showed potential, but was never in a position where he had to guard a player of Cockburn’s caliber for the majority of a game because he was coming off the bench behind Myles Johnson. Johnson recently transferred to UCLA, changing this dynamic.
Without Johnson in the mix, Illinois should look to get the ball into Cockburn’s hands early and often to force Omorui to defend him without fouling in the post. If Omorui gets in foul trouble they will have considerably weaker protection at the rim. The next two big guy in the Rutgers line-up are Ralph Gonzales-Agee, a transfer from San Jose State University, and freshman Jaden Jones. Each of these players is only 6’8” and are at a major size disadvantage when compared to Cockburn.
Omorui has already found himself in foul trouble multiple times this year, forcing the Scarlet Knights to rely on their weaker players. Rutgers has struggled in these games. In all three of Rutgers’ losses, Omorui has had 3 or more fouls.
The biggest key for the Illini defensively will be how they guard Ron Harper, Jr. Harper has had big games in Rutgers wins over the past couple of seasons and players of his stature on the wing tend to challenge the Illini. At 6’6”, Harper has the ability to play at the small forward or power forward positions, and it will be interesting to see who Illinois matches up with him. Now that Illinois has gone a little bit bigger with their line-ups, a variety of players could guard him.
Most likely, Jacob Grandison and De’monte Williams will get the bulk of the minutes. Additional players who could guard him include Coleman Hawkins, Ramses Melendez, and Luke Goode. Each one brings something different to the court, and just having this many options is advantageous.
Harper is shooting around 36% from the three on high volume, with an overall shooting average of 48%. With this relatively low difference in shooting percentage, Illinois should be looking to run him off the three and make him take tougher shots in the paint or mid-range jumpers. Illinois will likely look for a veteran player – Grandison or Williams – to make this happen, though Melendez also shows promise if he can work his way deeper into the rotation.
This is a big game for Illinois, who needs to establish their position in the conference hierarchy. Without Curbelo, they will continue to rely on Plummer and Frazier to step up. Offensively, the Illini can seek opportunities to take advantage of Rutgers’ lack of established depth in the post, but defensively they may be challenged to defend the wing which has been a weakness in the recent past.
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