Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights Pick & Prediction JANUARY 21st 2024

Considering Illinois thrashed Rutgers by 18 in the Dec. 2 Big Ten opener for both teams on the Scarlet Knights’ home floor, it’s tempting to expect a repeat when No. 14 Illinois hosts Sunday’s rematch.

But that would ignore the changes on both teams’ rosters.

Rutgers (10-7, 2-4) did not have senior forward Mawot Mag, who has averaged 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds and served as his team’s best defensive player since returning from a torn ACL nine games ago.

And Illinois (13-4, 4-2) does not have the services of senior wing Terrence Shannon Jr., who is suspended indefinitely after being charged with rape in Kansas. Shannon was on an All-American trajectory and piled up a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds in the first meeting with Rutgers.

To be fair, Illinois has not fared poorly in Shannon’s absence. The Illini have forged a 4-2 record and they’ve been averaging more points per possession in the six games without Shannon (1.22) than the 11 games with him (1.12).

That includes Illinois’ 88-73 win Thursday at Michigan, when five players scored in double figures and the lllini committed a season-low six turnovers. Why haven’t the Illini skipped a beat offensively?

“Not turning the ball over,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “Sharing the ball. Understanding where we’re trying to get (the ball). I mean, it’s no secret. It’s no secret what Penn State did last year, what Villanova does. We try to take advantage of a mismatch and force a double (team). And we’ve got guys who can make those plays. We can really shoot it — and it’s just great balance. We’re running enough action off the back side to get people opportunities.”

Senior center Coleman Hawkins was the biggest beneficiary on Thursday as he delivered the best game of his career with season-high 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and a career-high six steals.

“I think the way we’re playing allows for that,” Underwood said. “We’re not asking him as a 5-man to be a post-up player. We’re doing that with our guards. He’s a point center, if you want to call him that. And yet, defensively, there’s not that many people on the court he can’t guard.”

While Underwood has been enjoying the ride with a group that has been consistently excellent all season, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell has been trying all sorts of things to find enough offense to match the program’s typically excellent defense that ranks No. 6 nationally per KenPom.

The Scarlet Knights just might have found something in Wednesday’s 87-82 overtime win over Nebraska that included a double-digit comeback in the second half. Rutgers hit season highs for points and rebounds and snagged 25 offensive boards.

Sophomore point guard Derek Simpson led the way against Nebraska with 14 points, a career-high eight assists and a career-high-tying eight rebounds — a far cry from his seven-point, two-rebound, zero-assist effort in Rutgers’ first game against Illinois.

“He was just in command,” Pikiell said. “He’s had games like this. We’ve asked a lot of him as a sophomore. He keeps growing. Derek did what Derek needs to do. Whenever he grabs eight rebounds, I know he’s very involved. He’s really changed his approach to some things.”

Pikiell would love it if his squad can repeat Wednesday’s effort on Sunday in Champaign, Ill. — while ignoring the fact that Illinois ranks about 80 spots ahead of Rutgers on the KenPom and NET lists.

“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said. “I tell these guys, ‘Games aren’t won on computers. They’re won with the work that you do and the prep that you do.’

“Now we’ve got to go to Illinois and they’re one of the best teams in the country. It doesn’t get any easier. (But if) these guys keep being connected, keep playing defense and rebounding like that, (put) 87 points on the board, we can beat a lot of teams.”

–Field Level Media

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