Rutgers closes out season at home against Illinois
The Rutgers men's basketball team enters its final game of the regular season in a lull.
Just when the Scarlet Knights seemed to be gaining momentum, following a come-from-behind overtime victory over Northwestern a weekend ago, they were soundly defeated twice over by Maryland and No. 16 Ohio State.
Moving from that, Rutgers (13-17, 3-14) will celebrate Senior Day Sunday at 3 p.m., as it welcomes the Illinois Fighting Illini (13-16, 3-13) to the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) in what could very well be a preview of what is to come just three days later.
There is little else the Knights can do at the moment to prepare for the Big Ten Tournament next week besides undergo a shift in mentality.
In all likelihood, depending on the team's result in its final game Sunday, Rutgers will finish in either 12th or 13th place in the conference, and neither spot has much leverage over the other in a neutral court.
But heading into the postseason with three consecutive losses in the books is not an ideal situation for a team that has only recently recovered from a seven-game losing streak. When one of those losses could be against the team you are facing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, it does not do much for confidence heading into that deciding game.
Illinois charges into the contest on the heels of back-to-back matchups against No. 2 Michigan State and No. 9 Purdue, and the Knights will have to contend with that increased competition from the Illini.
Though Illinois ultimately fell to the Spartans, 81-61, it still received some positive individual performances from Leron Black and Trent Frazier. Black led all players that night with 20 points, while Frazier collected 14 of his own, along with five assists.
Frazier and Black were key figures in the Illini's 91-60 rout over Rutgers less than a month back, in which the Knights walked into the Champaign affair coming off of three straight losses.
Rutgers was in the midst of what would be its seven-game skid at the time, and Frazier especially took advantage. The freshman guard was lights out from beyond the 3-point line, going 5-of-7 from 3 as part of a 17-point night.
Then-last place Illinois shot 57 percent from the field that night, and it was one of many games in the latter half of the season in which the Knights' inability to score left them scrambling on defense.
Following Rutgers' 79-52 loss to the Buckeyes this past Tuesday, head coach Steve Pikiell once again remarked on the Knights' defensive struggles when they cannot produce on the other end.
"I thought (we) weren't good offensively, but our defense kept us around in the first half," Pikiell said, according to scarletknights.com. "We had a little bit of a run with our offense, but we couldn't sustain it in the second half. Our inability to score affected us on the defensive end in that half."
A major addition for Rutgers on Sunday will presumably be freshman guard Geo Baker, who missed Tuesday night's game against Ohio State due to illness.
In the first game between the Knights and the Illini this season, the Derry, New Hampshire native led his side with 19 points, shooting 55 percent on the night. Baker worked the Illinois backcourt on all sides of the court, going 3-of-6 from 3 and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line, a rare sight on a team that ranks last in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage.
Baker's absence Tuesday versus the Buckeyes moved rotations around and allowed guards like Kam Williams to excel in transition, especially from outside, where he knocked down 3-of-5 attempts.
Defending the 3 is not an issue Rutgers has confronted much this season, but lesser teams have found that on "on" nights, it can be a recipe for success against the Knights.
The Illini found that out in January. Rutgers cannot be all to blame for Illinois shooting a wildly uncharacteristic 57 percent. But the Knights can realistically find themselves lacking on offense, and with that in mind, even a slightly above average night from the field for the Illini could prove the difference.
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