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Rodgers exploiting unique defensive schemes

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Big Ten is a copycat league.

Or at least it has been this month when it comes to how teams have decided to defend Ty Rodgers.

Purdue threw a monkey wrench into the Illinois offense when it opted to use 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey to defend Rodgers. And defend might be too strong of a descriptor. The 7-foot-4 Edey essentially ignored the 6-6Illini guard when he was on the perimeter, camping out in the paint to ruin other players' days by his long-armed, physical presence.

The rest of the Big Ten teams Illinois faced in January made a similar defensive decision. To varying degrees of success. No one was as successful as the Boilermakers with Edey. No doubt because there's no one quite like him in the conference.

Ohio State had much less success Tuesday night at Value City Arena. The Buckeyes chose to loosely defend Rodgers away from the basket, and the Illinois sophomore made them pay.

Rodgers was aggressive in attacking the rim against bigger defenders and used the fact no one was remotely close to him when shots went up to consistently crash the offensive glass.

The result was a second career double-double for the versatile 6-foot-6 guard — 13 points and 10 rebounds.

What Illinois coach Brad Underwood called a "dominant" performance in the 14th-ranked Illini's 87-75 victory in front of an announced crowd of 10,285 fans.

"Everybody keeps putting 5-men on him, and we just keep laughing because he's our best post player," Underwood said. "He's got great post moves and feet."

Rodgers won't mind if Illinois' next 10 Big Ten opponents choose to defend him similarly. The number of times he's seen that specific defensive scheme in games — and the work the Illini have done to counter it in practice — has seen his comfort level skyrocket. With comfort has come confidence to be more assertive offensively, whether that means attacking the mismatch with the ball in his hands or acting as the screener in pick-and-roll scenarios.

"Keep doing it," Rodgers said. "If that's what they want to do and scheme, we love it."

Rodgers' teammates called him a difference maker in Tuesday's double-digit win against Ohio State. He added two assists to his efficient double-double and turned the ball over just once.

"When he can rebound like that and not turn the ball over, other teams just have no answer for him," Illinois forward Dain Dainja said. "You can't do that with Ty. His handle is too nice. He can just dice bigs up. A lot of teams are trying to put their bigs on Ty, and it's just not working."

It's working less because Illinois (16-5, 7-3 Big Ten) is ready for it.

"Teams can try do to the cross-matching and put the 5 on him and do all that stuff, but we practice for it," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "We're prepared for that. Ty knows what to do. We all know how to play off Ty when they do that. It's just another defensive coverage teams are going to throw at us to try to stop us, but we have counters for everything."

Rodgers' 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting saw him come up just two points shy of the career-high he set against Michigan State and matched at Michigan this month. Underwood, of course, was most taken with Rodgers' offensive rebounding against the Buckeyes. A game-high four offensive rebounds led to second-chance opportunities, including a two-handed, putback tip dunk.

How teams have defended him makes Rodgers' life easier trying to haul in offensive rebounds. Whether his defender plays eight feet off him or is the player used to double team Domask or Terrence Shannon Jr., Rodgers basically has free run at the rim to clean up any misses.

"When TJ and Marcus draw that double team and my man leaves, if they shoot that ball, it's just me," Rodgers said. "I think it's a lot easier for me to go and be aggressive on the offensive glass."

That is what Underwood expects isn't lost on Rodgers either.

"It's not rocket science," Underwood said. "It's one of the things he was elite at as a freshman. He was one of the top guys in the Big Ten, per 40 minutes, rebounding the basketball. We played him a lot at the 4 and 5 last year. When he's around the rim, he's extremely effective. He's got long arms. He's got very, very strong hands and doesn't get bothered. He got some easy baskets that way and helped change the game."