Rutgers aims to end six game skid at Illinois
The Rutgers men’s basketball team has lost six straight games. Illinois has not had back-to-back wins since the year changed to 2015.
When the Scarlet Knights (10-13, 2-8) square off against the Illini tonight at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois, one streak will end.
In what is the only meeting this season between the two schools, and only second meeting in program history — the Illini beat the Knights 77-57 in 2005 — Rutgers might not get a better chance to earn its first ever Big Ten road win.
But facing an Illinois team likely to be backed by a crowd upwards of 14,000 fans, head coach Eddie Jordan acknowledged the challenge ahead.
“In basketball, if you’re not a dominant, great team you’re going to have troubles on the road no matter what level you’re on, whether it’s high school, AAU, college [or] NBA,” Jordan said postgame after Saturday’s loss at Indiana. “… It’s hard winning on the road no matter what league you’re in.”
Yet, for all the misfortune and injuries the Knights have endured this season, there may not be a team who has encountered more adversity than Illinois.
The Illini (14-8, 4-5) began the year projected to finish sixth out of 14 teams in the conference’s preseason poll with an outside hope of pushing for the NCAAs, but have hit speed bump after speed bump.
It started with an announcement in September that starting point guard Tracy Abrams would miss the entire 2014-15 season after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee during preseason.
Abrams averaged 10.7 points per game last season and led the team in assists.
Then, Illinois head coach John Groce announced just before the team’s game against Penn State on Saturday that guards Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were suspended indefinitely for violations of program rules.
The pair already missed time during the season dealing with injuries suffered in January, and had just returned to fitness when the suspensions were made.
Rice is the Illini’s leading scorer and rebounder averaging 17.2 points per game while Cosby, a former starter for Rutgers’ rival Seton Hall, is fourth on the team in scoring.
With three of its top guards out, Illinois has been limited to a seven and occasionally eight man rotation and leaving them so thin in the backcourt they promoted team manager Ryan Schmidt to the roster last week against Minnesota.
With lack of depth serving as a handicap for the Knights against deeper Big Ten competition, tonight’s matchup will have both teams on a level playing field with freshman guard Mike Williams’ injury also cutting Rutgers to a thin rotation.
But one disadvantage the Knights could face is fatigue. After weather delayed last Tuesday’s game against Michigan State to Thursday, Rutgers now must play its third game in six days.
The Knights faced similar scheduling earlier in the season, but with all five of their starters logging 34 minutes or more in Saturday’s 72-64 road loss at Indiana, it raises concern.
Illinois has also proven to be a very difficult team to beat at home, even with its depth concerns and boasts a 10-1 home record this season.
That includes a thrilling 60-58 win against Penn State, where guard Malcolm Hill scored 27 points which included the game-winning layup on 10-of-15 shooting.
In order to keep pace, Rutgers needs repeat performances from senior guard Myles Mack and senior forward Kadeem Jack.
Mack scored a game-high 24 points in the loss to the Hoosiers rebounding from a two-game cold streak, while Jack added 11 points of his own.
The Knights will also need their role players to continue to step up, namely sophomore wing Junior Etou, who scored double-digit points for the first time in conference play at Indiana, and is likely to be tasked with guarding the 6-foot-6 Hill.
Even then, avoiding turnovers and making foul shots are a must, with Illinois ranking first in the conference in free throw percentage and third in turnover margin.
But most importantly, Jordan stressed the importance belief will play in emerging victorious.
“Losing six in a row, you have to keep your kids upbeat,” Jordan said. “Keep them in a positive mood, keep their confidence soaring through the roof. You can’t let them get down on each other or themselves.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow @SeanStewartRU and @TargumSports on Twitter.