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Rutgers heads to Illinois for 2 games over next 5 days

This Saturday’s matchup between the Rutgers men's basketball team and Illinois has large implications when it comes to the Big Ten Tournament and its seeding chart. 

As of now, the Scarlet Knights (11-11, 4-8) and the Fighting Illini (8-15, 4-8) are surprisingly tied for the No. 10 seed in the conference with records of 4-8, despite the 3.5-game difference in their overall records.

Rutgers had a rocky start to the Big Ten schedule, going 1-6 over the first seven games, including two separate three-game losing streaks. After an 8-point loss to Northwestern, the Knights held a players-only meeting to try and change the culture of the team — and it worked.

In a nine-day span, Rutgers won three straight conference games for the first time since joining the Big Ten. Wins over Nebraska, Penn State (on the road) and Indiana catapulted the Knights to as high as No. 8 in the conference standings and also gave Rutgers four Big Ten wins in a regular season for the first time ever — so the team was rolling.

But, the Knights have since come back to Earth, falling to Ohio State on the road last weekend and then again to No. 7 Michigan on Tuesday night — to its credit, Rutgers stayed toe-to-toe with the Wolverines throughout, but dug itself into too big of a hole at the start of the game.

Looking at Illinois, no group is riding higher than it coming into this weekend’s matchup. The Illini are coming off a huge upset victory over No. 9 Michigan State the same night the Knights faced Michigan at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).

Illinois’ defense caused an incredible 24 turnovers — 12 of which came off steals — and the Illini's Ayo Dosunmu scored 24 points on 8-14 shooting (57 percent) to lead Illinois past the Spartans.

“It’s organized chaos they try to get you to play in. You’ve got to be real poised,” said head coach Steve Pikiell on playing offense in Champaign, Illinois. "As you see, teams really turn the ball over a great deal against them, so you’ve really got to take care of the basketball.”

Rutgers managed to turn the ball over just nine times last time out, but the team usually averages 13 turnovers a game, something that will need to be kept in check if the Knights hope to stay alive Saturday afternoon.

Tuesday night’s win was Illinois’ second ranked Big Ten win in four games, as it defeated then-No. 13 Maryland at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 26. 

Junior forward Eugene Omoruyi and sophomore guard Geo Baker have averaged 14.6 and 13 points per game, respectively. They continue to lead the way in points per game for Rutgers this season, but have also gotten help from others, as well. 

“I think it’s going to be a good game for us. I feel like it’s a must-win,” Baker said. “Every game is a must-win.”

True freshman guard Montez Mathis has improved immensely as the season waned on and since Pikiell has implemented him into the starting lineup. He is currently third on the scoring list with 8.3 points per games.

Graduate student center Shaquille Doorson went a perfect 4-4 from the field for 8 points and grabbed six rebounds last time out against the Wolverines.

A key point to watch for Saturday afternoon is the Illini’s scoring, as they score a high 73.9 points per game, compared to 66.8 by the Knights. Rutgers has been able to hold its opponents to 67.1 points per game this season, but this is significantly lower than Illinois’ average.

The Knights have eight games remaining in the regular season including Saturday’s matchup, five of which will be played on the road and at least three of which will be against teams currently ranked in the top 20 in the nation.

While Rutgers will have the opportunity to get back at the Wildcats in Evanston, Illinois for the 8-point loss earlier in the season, the same can be said for the Hoosiers when the Hoosiers go against the Knights in the final game of the season.

“(This league’s) got a lot of team’s that are capable of beating anybody on any given night," Pikiell said. "I don’t care what your preseason pick was or what people say about you."

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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