Illinois 82, Rutgers 66
CHAMPAIGN - Malcolm Hill's sore hamstring could've provided Illinois with another "woe is me" moment during a season of misfortunate. But Hill nor the Illini allowed the aching muscle to snowball into the Illini's biggest setback of the season.
Hill started, played through and excelled with his injury, finishing with his sixth double-double of the season (22 points, 10 rebounds in 32 minutes) to lead Illinois to its largest margin of victory over a conference opponent this season.
The Illini (12-14, 4-9 Big Ten) snapped a four-game conference home losing streak, while Rutgers (6-20, 0-13 Big Ten) has lost 28 straight conference games.
Illinois took a 47-25 halftime lead, led for 37:28 of the game and held a lead of 26 points with 16:02 remaining. Rutgers outscored the Illini 41-35 in the second half and scored 38 points in the paint (Illinois had 24), including 24 in the second half.
Maverick Morgan added 17 points, five rebounds and a career-high four blocks (he had four blocks on the season entering the game). Kendrick Nunn added 16 (4-for-8 three), and Jalen Coleman-Lands had nine points.
Without star freshman guard Corey Sanders due to a suspension, Rutgers had four players score in double figures. Jonathan Laurent led the Scarlet Knights with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Mike Williams and Bishop Daniels each added 15. Daniels added seven assists and Williams added five assists.
Illinois had 21 points off of 16 Rutgers' turnovers. The teams tied in the rebounding battle 33-33.
The Illini shot 45.8 percent from the field, including 9-for-22 from three. Rutgers shot 43.9 percent.
What it means
Not much. Rutgers is absolutely terrible, especially with Sanders out. But the Illini played well for a large portion of the game to expose all those weaknesses. Maybe they gained some confidence in the process. The finish, though, left a lot to be desired. The Illini failed to truly put the game out of reach against one of the weaker opponents of the season. But the Illini took care of business, avoiding a loss from which the staff likely couldn't recoer.
What went right
The Illini ball movement (17 assists on 27 field goals) was as good as its been all season. The Illini, who too often have been bogged down by too much dribbling and too much one-on-one isos, made the extra pass and. There were many hockey assists, a rarity this season.
Morgan's transformation into a reliable Big Ten offensive threat continues. He now has 87 points over the last seven games (12.4 ppg). His offensive skill set must be scouted and accounted for. He's dangerous on the block and out to 15 feet. And while he's still not the most physical presence, he has shown more toughness on the glass.
Coleman-Lands continues his hot streak. Over the last three games, he is 18-for-42 (42.9 percent) from three. He already has proven himself as an elite shooter, and he is starting to add more to his game. He is starting to attack off the dribble and dish better and is more reliable on defense, flashing a few nice box outs against Rutgers.
D.J. Williams (eight points, five rebounds) has now strung together four straight high-energy efforts off the bench. He's far from a complete product or even a reliable one, but he's productive when he brings energy, especially on defense and on the glass.
Nunn is getting back on track. He is 7-for-15 from three the last two games.
What went wrong
The Illini defense was pretty terrible in the second half. Rutgers made 13 of 16 shots during a large stretch to cut the Illini's huge lead to lower double digits, and 8 of those 13 field goals were layups. Despite Morgan's career night in blocks, the interior defense has been a sieve all season and hasn't improved much.
Michael Finke (two points, four rebounds) remains in his Big Ten rut, and Jaylon Tate (0 points in three minutes) is now a nonfactor. Also, Aaron Jordan (0-for-4 with four fouls) still doesn't look comfortable. He's forcing shots and struggling to master his defensive assignments.
Star of the game
Malcolm Hill: The Illini junior gutted out a bothersome injury and continues to contribute in every facet of the game. Despite the Illini's record, he should be a Second Team All-Big Ten selection. He's carried a heavy burden.
Illinois heads to Wisconsin to play the red-hot Badgers (16-9, 8-4 Big Ten). After Bo Ryan's midseason retirement and a 9-9 start (including 1-4 in conference play), Wisconsin has won seven straight games under interim coach Greg Gard (who is making his case to Barry Alvarez for the permanent job). During the streak, Wisconsin has won at home against No. 8 Michigan State and No. 22 Indiana and on the road at No. 6 Maryland. The Badgers play at Michigan State on Thursday, so they will be on a quicker turnaround. But Gard has his team playing at an NCAA Tournament level. And Illinois has lost eight straight to Wisconsin (Groce is 0-7 vs. the Badgers) and the Illini have lost their last five games at the Kohl Center by an average of 18.6 points per game.