Rutgers eyes end to skid in return home against Illinois
The Rutgers men's basketball team finally catches a break from its vaunted Big Ten slate.
Facing three conference foes ranked in the AP-Top 25 over the span of its past four games, the Scarlet Knights (6-16, 0-9) enter what should be more of a feasible task when they return to the Rutgers Athletic Center for a 6:30 p.m. tip-off Wednesday night against Illinois on Big Ten Network.
Rutgers bounced back from the worst home loss in program history with improved competition in losses to then-No. 9 Iowa and Michigan, but it backtracked again when overwhelmed by then-No. 12 Michigan State's school-record 17 3-pointers in a 96-62 rout in East Lansing last Sunday night.
But with the Fighting Illini (10-12, 2-7) having a down year and entering Piscataway losers in seven of their last nine games, the Knights hope to take advantage of an opponent that pales in comparison to the upper echelon of the conference.
The Illini are just as banged up as Eddie Jordan's squad, which suits up with eight scholarship players on the court.
They have just one player taller than 6-foot-7 available, which sounds familiar to those traveling to the RAC considering Rutgers had to deal with the same issue over much of the course of January.
Illinois 6-foot-10 forward Michael Finke is unlikely to play and second-leading scorer Kendrick Nunn (17.8 points per game) is a game-time decision for the Illini, according to The Daily Illini.
The Knights' third-year head coach welcomes the leveled playing field, but brushed off the idea that a smaller opposing rotation alters how Rutgers approaches the game.
"It doesn't change anything," Jordan said. "We're gonna game plan for their main action, we're gonna play with a lot of effort and spirit. We're at home ... and hopefully we can learn from a lot of our bumps and bruises and downfalls and that we come forward these next nine games and put to apply what we've learned over however many the last games."
Up against a team as deep as the Spartans, Rutgers simply doesn't have the bodies or size to keep up over the span of a 40-minute, two-half ballgame.
But as far as matching up with Illinois is concerned, the foot is clearly taken off the gas pedal.
While the Knights have had their fair share of rebounding struggles at the bottom of the Big Ten in rebounding margin (-6.3), the Illini rank last in offensive rebounds per game (7.7) and 13th in defensive rebounds per game (24.2) in the 14-team conference.
The Knights rely on 6-foot-9 senior center Greg Lewis and 6-foot-7 sophomore forward D.J. Foreman to carry the load in the post as 6-foot-6 freshman forward Jonathan Laurent mixes in for both off the bench.
As much as the extra time between the three has taken its toll, Rutgers has played with the hand it has been dealt to this point in the season.
"We've still gotta lace 'em up just like they do," Lewis said. "We gotta have every guy that's suiting up to play their best for us to get a win."
While the Knights' backcourt returns to the RAC on the heels of guards Omari Grier, Corey Sanders and Mike Williams combining for 52 of the team's 62 points at Michigan State, none of that matters if Rutgers fails to protect the paint and produce down low as well on the offensive end.
The Knights, who have been riding Sanders heavily as the first-year guard continues to lead all Big Ten freshmen in points per game (14.2), assists per game (3.76) and steals (33), remains reliant on the production of its guard play in order to spark the team and remain competitive.
For Sanders, a former ESPN Top 100 recruit and four-star prospect, none of the losses have altered that confidence needed in order to seize the elusive first victory in Big Ten play this season.
Instead, as he and Rutgers have continued to break down the season to this point, it's only added fuel to the fire.
"We look at everything. We look at the teams we're playing, we look at — in film, we're watching the good stuff we're doing and the bad stuff we're doing," Sanders said. "And that's what we're looking forward to — the positive things. Just keep the momentum, keep faith and come out playing hard."