PREVIEW: Illinois at Rutgers

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' regular season finale at Rutgers on Saturday.

Illinois (18-12, 8-9) at

Rutgers (13-17, 2-15)

Date & Time: March 4, 11 a.m. CT

Location: The RAC (Piscataway, N.J.)

TV: ESPNU

Quick Hits

  • Illinois has won four straight Big Ten games for the first time since 2015.
  • The Illini haven't won five straight Big Ten contests since John Groce's first season.
  • Illinois will look to win its fourth straight conference road game for the first time since 2005.
  • During the win streak, the Illini are holding opponents to 60.8 points per game.
  • Illinois is 4-0 all-time against Rutgers with a 110-101 win in 3OT in the last trip to the RAC.
  • Rutgers has lost six in a row and nine of the last 10.
  • The Scarlet Knights are 1-7 at home in Big Ten play with a win over Nebraska in January.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had two points, three assists and two steals against Michigan State on Wednesday. But he was just 1-of-6 from the field and had three giveaways in his 32 minutes. However, Groce said Lucas played much better than his stat line, especially in chasing around one of the quickest point guards in college basketball.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams hit a pair of big threes against the Spartans on his way to six points and four assists. He's playing with a high level of confidence down the stretch of the regular season, and it's been refreshing. He went 6-of-9 from three in the last two games combined, along with 10 assists.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill has been one heck of a player for this program and he was outstanding on Wednesday with 22 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals in 38 minutes. He's making a legitimate case for himself as a first-team All-Big Ten selection with the way he's produced and gotten his team to win over the last few weeks.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black provided an enormous spark in the first half against Michigan State, as he was absolutely on fire. He went 5-of-5 from the field and 3-of-3 from long range for 13 first-half points. When he's on, he makes the Illini all the more dangerous.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan was unstoppable on the block against the Spartans, who left him in one-on-one matchups. The senior big man was efficient by hitting seven of his 13 attempts for 14 points. He also had seven rebounds, three assists and a block.

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands did what he does on Wednesday by hitting a pair of triples of the bench during his 23 minutes. Discounting his injury-shortened appearance against Northwestern, Coleman-Lands has hit nine treys in his last three games.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols had five points, three rebounds and a steal in 11 minutes off the bench against Michigan State. He continues to provide energy and production, even in controlled doses. Defensively, he's had three steals and four blocks in the last three games combined.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke hit a three and grabbed a rebound in his 11 minutes on Wednesday. He went just 1-of-6 from the field in the last two games combined. But he's still on of the most efficient threats from three in the conference.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate did not play on Wednesday. He's sat the last three games.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan didn't see action against the Spartans. He's sat four of the last five games.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has sat out six straight games.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams has sat out the last 10 games.

Rutgers Starters

Corey Sanders (SO): Sanders leads the Scarlet Knights with 12.9 points per game, but his efficiency numbers have went down from his freshman season. He still has the ability to be electric, and he showed that with 39 points against the Illini in the 3OT battle last season.

Mike Williams (JR): Williams is averaging 9.9 points and five rebounds per game. He's posted 14 points in each of the last two games, and he's averaged seven boards per contest during that stretch. Williams had 15 points in each outing against Illinois last season.

Issa Thiam (FR): Thiam is averaging 3.7 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. He's scored five points combined in the last four games. The Knights use his length and mobility at 6-foot-9 to help them at the defensive end.

Deshawn Freeman (JR): Freeman has posted 10.9 points and a team-high eight rebounds per game this season. He's also the only player on the roster shooting higher than 40 percent from three, although he's only made five on the season.

CJ Gettys (GR): The transfer from UNC-Wilmington is averaging 7.9 points and five rebounds per game. His game isn't pretty, but he hard to move out of the paint at seven foot and 270 pounds. He had 12 points and five rebounds the last time out against Maryland.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Early energy. Groce admitted on Friday that it is concerning when you come off an emotional win like the Illini did on Wednesday night. Illinois spent energy, emotion and just about everything they had to pull it out against Michigan State. Now, they face a quick turnaround and an early start against an opponent that is just asking you to sleepwalk. But the Illini can't fall into that trap. Abrams said after Wednesday's game that there won't be a letdown, and that they know what they're playing for. When you consider that, Illinois has to come out like this is another elimination game. Get Rutgers down early and keep building.

2. Defend a bad team. Rutgers is the worst team in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency. They're one of the worst teams in the country in effective field goal percentage, three-point percentage, two-point percentage and free-throw percentage. They are really bad at that end of the floor. During their six game losing streak, they haven't scored more than 65 points. Illinois has held much better opponents to under 61 points per game during their four-game winning streak. They are fully capable of putting the clamps on this team. It will start with Lucas staying in front of Sanders, which was something the Illini couldn't do in Piscataway last year. One thing Rutgers does well offensively is hit the offensive glass. They are eighth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. In other words, they're pretty good at getting their misses back. Although, they might just miss again.

3. Stay hot from three. The trey-ball has really evolved the Illinois offense. The Illini were on fire from deep at Nebraska, and they carried at over on Wednesday night with 11 long bombs against Michigan State. With the way they're shooting it from the outside, that forces teams to stay away from doubling Morgan on the block. It also extends defenders out to the line and opens up driving lanes. The Illini are shooting 42 percent from deep over the last six games, and they have hit more than nine per game during that 5-1 stretch.

Prediction

The concerns about a letdown are valid. But this team has come too far to let it all slip away against this awful basketball team. Anybody can beat anybody in this league, and Groce said that has kept his group humble over the last few days. They should stay hungry, and in terms of winning, they should stay hot.

Illinois 68, Rutgers 57


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