Rutgers continues worst stretch of season with 31-point loss to last-place Illinois
Coming into Tuesday night's road battle against the Illinois Fighting Illini, it was imperative for the Rutgers men's basketball team to both continue its season of strong defense and find its shooting form.
Neither of those two things happened.
The Scarlet Knights (12-12, 2-9) entered Urbana-Champaign hoping to curb a three-game losing streak, only to move into last place in the Big Ten with an ugly 91-60 loss to Illinois (12-11, 2-8).
After shooting a dismal 31 percent from the field over the weekend against Penn State, Rutgers improved on that versus the Illini, putting up a 42-percent field goal rate, but it was still not enough to offset the team's defensive woes.
It was a promising start for the Knights, with freshman guard Geo Baker asserting himself early with consecutive 3-pointers, courtesy of junior guard Corey Sanders.
But past the opening minutes, Rutgers was unable to even match Baker's early output, with most of the team failing to redeem itself after an abysmal effort against the Nittany Lions.
Beyond not being able to put the ball in the basket, the Knights could not keep the ball in their half of the court either.
Despite heading into the contest holding the second-lowest turnover rate in the Big Ten with 11.3 per game, Rutgers turned the ball over 25 times Tuesday night, sharing them almost evenly in both halves, with 13 in the first and 12 in the second.
Somewhat fortunately for the Knights, Illinois was just as sloppy on the offensive end, turning the ball over 17 times on the night.
But turnovers seemed the only way Rutgers could exert control over the Illini on defense. Though usually a defensive stalwart, allowing a Big Ten-leading 62 points per game, the Knights could not contain Illinois, especially from outside the perimeter, where the home side knocked down 11-of-27 (41 percent) from 3.
Most of that production came from guard Trent Frazier, who had a field day from beyond the arc Tuesday night, going 5-of-7 from downtown. Frazier found success predominately in the first half, almost matching the team's point total, scoring 15 to the visitors' 22 before getting in foul trouble in the second half.
But Frazier was far from the only one putting up numbers on the offensive end for Illinois, with four other players hitting double digits. Mark Alstork joined Frazier on the outside, going 3-of-6 from deep en route to a 12-point night.
Leron Black, Michael Finke and Kipper Nichols joined Frazier and Alstork in giving Rutgers no room to settle on defense, scoring 14, 11 and 19 points, respectively.
On both ends, the Illini even outrebounded the Knights, an area Rutgers usually has a hold on, especially on offense, only trailing Illinois itself in offensive rebounds. Still, the Illini collected 29 rebounds to the Knights' 26.
It was largely a product of Rutgers being without three of its strongest rebounders for at least parts of the game, an unfortunate circumstance to add on to an already-grueling game.
With senior guard Mike Williams already out indefinitely with an ankle injury, sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi went down in the first half with a left leg injury, with no word yet on his status.
Later, fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman fouled out with 10 minutes remaining in the game, leaving the Knights without their best rebounder and strongest presence in the paint, letting Illinois exploit them more, both from the field and on the boards.
Though a lot of it falls on Rutgers, part of the loss comes out of a last-placed Illini squad playing like a team in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Illinois scored 29 more points than the Knights allow per game, with the team shooting well beyond its abilities from 3 as well.
But for all of that to happen against this Rutgers side on by far its worst stretch of the season, tells plenty about the team's capacity to bounce back from adversity. The Knights have now lost four games in a row, suffering multiple double-digit losses to teams it should either compete with or put away.
The Illini fall into the latter group, and Rutgers falling to them by 31 points is not the best sign going into a matchup with No. 3 Purdue on Saturday.
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