Illinois (11-5, 3-2 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Trent Frazier Jr. 6-2 9.2
G Ayo Dosunmu So. 6-5 15.3
G Da’Monte Williams Jr. 6-3 2.9
F Giorgi Bezhanishvili So. 6-9 8.3
C Kofi Cockburn Fr. 7-0 15.0
FYI: The highest PER and plus/minus for this Illini team doesn’t belong to any of the starters. That would be Alan Griffin with a PER of 29.1 and a plus/minus of 10.5. Only 20 other players in the nation that are rotation regulars can match that.
Off the bench
G Andres Feliz Sr. 6-2 10.8
G Alan Griffin So. 6-5 9.7
F Kipper Nichols R-Sr. 6-6 3.8
Rutgers (12-3, 3-1 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Caleb McConnell So. 6-7 7.3
G Montez Mathis So. 6-4 7.0
G/F Ron Harper Jr. So. 6-6 12.4
F Akwasi Yeboah Gr. 6-6 9.1
C Myles Johnson So. 6-11 9.7
FYI: The Scarlet Knights have played the last two games without junior guard, assists leader and second-leading scorer Geo Baker. The Derry, N.H., native suffered a broken left thumb in practice before Big Ten play restarted Jan. 3 at Nebraska and is out indefinitely.
Off the bench
G Paul Mulcahy Fr. 6-6 4.0
G Jacob Young Jr. 6-2 8.5
F Shaq Carter Sr. 6-9 4.0
Site: State Farm Center (15,544), Champaign.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Deon Thomas(analysis) will have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDAN 1490-AM, WDNL 102.1 FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
TV: Jeff Levering (play-by-play) and Jess Settles (analysis) will have the call on BTN.
Series history: Illinois leads 7-1.
Last meeting: Illinois won 99-94 in overtime on Feb. 9, 2019.
FYI: Giorgi Bezhanishvili broke Deon Thomas’ single-game freshman scoring record in last year’s win against Rutgers with 35 points on a hyper-efficient 14-of-18 shooting (plus 7-of-8 shooting at the free-throw line). That was the second 30-point game for an Illini in 2018-19, with Trent Frazier dropping 30 in a loss at Minnesota eight days earlier.
Scott Richey’s storylines
Adding Kofi Cockburn to the roster this offseason meant several changes for Illinois. The Illini’s defense looks the most different, but their offense has seen a steady infusion of ball screen action with the 7-foot, 285-pound freshman center. Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu often has the ball in his hands in those situations — like the closing minutes of Wednesday’s win at Wisconsin. Dosunmu and the other guards can look for their own offensive opportunities off those ball screens, but finding Cockburn has been a consistent option, too. “I’ve been more focused sprinting after ball screens and making sure I get eye contact with my point guards,” Cockburn said. “It’s a better pace. I think it’s connectivity. We’ve connected a lot because we do it over and over again in practice. We have that bond where we trust each other and are willing to make that extra pass.”
Rutgers enters Saturday’s game on a six-game winning streak. It’s the second-longest active streak in the Big Ten behind Michigan State’s eight. Illinois coach Brad Underwood will also contend the Scarlet Knights are deep, and they have a largely interchangeable roster with plenty of big guards like Caleb McConnell and Ron Harper Jr. “They can create some disadvantages from a size standpoint,” Underwood said. “They’re an extremely handsy team with that length and size on the defensive side. They use it to their advantage. They can cause you some mismatch problems because they’re basically position-less from 1-4.”
Seems like Illinois sophomore guard Alan Griffin is now taking his cues from tight-lipped New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “We went over it in film,” Griffin said about what he expects from Rutgers. “That’s what it is.” Dosunmu was a little more forthcoming. “It’s going to be a dogfight early in the morning,” he said. “They like to get two-point field goals. They want to drive it. They want to offensive rebound. It’s going to be a fun game.”
Prediction: Illinois 81, Rutgers 75
The Illini have yet to lose at home so far in Big Ten play. Considering most of the rest of the conference can also claim that, leaving State Farm Center with another win against Rutgers is imperative. Not that the Scarlet Knights will make it easy for Illinois. (N-G prediction record: 11-5)