What did we learn from Rutgers at Illinois?

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  • Illinois Fighting Illini
    Illinois Fighting Illini
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Kofi Cockburn
    Jamaican basketball player

Rutgers’ men’s basketball team hit the road on Friday night to kick off Big Ten play with a matchup against Illinois airing on ESPN 2. The Scarlet Knights dropped an ugly one, losing by 35 with a final score of 86-51.

Rutgers now falls to a 4-4 record after starting the season has taken on Illinois 12 times in the programs history. The last meeting was this past March in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. The Fighting Illini also won by a big number, 90-68. Rutgers did defeat them during the regular season last year at home, 91-88.

The Fighting Illini have now gotten out to a 6-2 start. Despite winning two of three last week, Illinois dropped from No. 15 to just outside the top 25 in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll. Since the poll was last updated on November 29, Illinois has defeated Notre Dame at home before demolishing Rutgers in the same building, where they are now 5-1 on the year. Fans may remember that the Scarlet Knights were receiving votes for the top 25 earlier this season.

The Scarlet Knights Geo Baker was once again out of commission while dealing with a hamstring issue. Facing off with an Illinois team that is 26th in the country in defensive efficiency without one of their Senior leaders was always going to be an uphill battle.

Let’s take a look at the key observations from Friday night’s Big Ten opener.

Kofi Cockburn is the real deal

Dec 3, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) dunks the ball during the first half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

For those that are only watching Rutgers or haven’t paid close attention to the Big Ten, you may not be too familiar with Kofi Cockburn. The preseason All-American has been a force for the Illini, leading the nation in scoring while averaging 26.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

Before the game, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said about Cockburn: “Kofi Cockburn is one of the best pure post-up guys in the country. He’s huge. Cliff (Omoruyi) is going to be tested in a lot of ways and his basketball IQ will really come into fruition in the next couple of games.”

Cockburn may not have been as dominant in this one, but the game was in hand for Illinois before the game made it to half time. He finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds on the night, his third double-double of the season.

Cockburn also handled Cliff Omoruyi with relative ease in Omoruyi’s first true test of the season. Clifford the Big Scarlet Knight was able to stay out of foul trouble but totaled just eight points on four of nine shooting and three rebounds against Cockburn.

Geo, dude, they missed you

The offense for the Scarlet Knights struggled mightily without star Senior Geo Baker.

In a game where their shooting percentage was very low (30.9%), they could’ve used the efficient senior. He is shooting 40 percent from the field, averaging 11.2 and is also second on the team with average assist at 4.0.

On a night where leading scorer Ron Harper was abysmal from the field and only one Scarlet Knight finished the game in double digits (Jaden Jones, 10 pts), Baker’s presence was surely missed.

Where was the defense?

Dec 3, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois players celebrate their team’s 86-51 win over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After making the game close at 8-7 early in the first half, but Illinois never looked back from there. The Fighting Illini shot 48.5 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from three point range.

Illinois was able to empty the bench in this one as everyone eligible registered 3+ minutes in the game. Three players scored in double digits, with another scoring nine.

Rutgers had been decent on defense even with their offensive struggles prior to this game, but with the type of performance the offense had in this one, they needed their defense to step up which was a challenge against a strong Illinois squad.

Discipline, Discipline, Discipline

This one is unfortunately becoming a trend. This may not be their worst performance of the season when it comes to disciplined play, but with their other struggles it sure did not help.

Rutgers lost the turnover battle 14-10 and and had 15 personal fouls to Illinois’ 10. The biggest difference when it comes to fouls was the result and situation of those fouls. Despite being fouled in the double digits, the Scarlet Knights only took four free throws all game, sinking two of them. The Fighting Illini buried 10 of their 11 opportunities from the charity stripe.

One positive – despite being outrebounded 47-33, Rutgers did match their opponent with 13 offensive rebounds. they were not able to do much on offense regardless of where it was a second-chance opportunity, but that many offensive rebounds is something the team can build on.

Offensive struggles continue

There is no secret that the Scarlet Knight offense has struggled this year. They came into the contest with an offensive efficiency of 103.8, good for 122nd in the nation.

Harper, the leading scorer, shot just 1-9 from the field and finished with only five points. only one starter (Omoruyi) shot over 30 percent from the field. Five different Rutgers players hit one or no shots from the field in the game. Three more players hit only two shots.

The only positives on the offensive end were the aforementioned offensive rebounds and their three point shooting. The Scarlet Knights finished 7-17 from long range, for 41.2 percent.

Fans of Rutgers can expect Harper to bounce back, but the offense has struggled to get their footing even when Baker in healthy.

Rutgers faces off with No. 2 Purdue University next week on December 9.

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