CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn was rather straightforward following Illinois’ Wednesday night win at Wisconsin.
That 71-70 victory wasn’t necessarily a game the Illini would have won a month ago and maybe even more recent than that. Illinois’ 20-point road loss at Michigan State a week prior was obviously still fresh.
“A couple games ago, we would have lost that game,” Cockburn said from outside the visitor’s locker room at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. “We lost that game twice versus Miami and versus Maryland. It’s a turning point to come out and win this game.
“I feel like we got rushed in those two games. Basically, we didn’t keep a level head. Right now, we’re experienced in that situation. Everyone has a level head, and everyone comes out with composure to execute.”
Illinois (11-5, 3-2 Big Ten) will try to keep its winning streak intact with an 11 a.m. Saturday tipoff against Rutgers (12-3, 3-1) at State Farm Center. Fresh off their first Big Ten road victory of the season — a rarity so far across the conference — the Illini understand the significance of facing the Scarlet Knights.
“Big game,” sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “I’d say this is probably one of our biggest games of the season so far because we’re riding on so much momentum and finally have turned that corner. We have to just continue to do that against Rutgers. We got a great road win, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take care of our home court.”
Pushing its winning streak to three games with a victory against Rutgers would also be a rarity for Illinois in Big Ten play. The Illini won four straight conference games last February for its only streak of the 2018-19 season, and they only managed a single two-game Big Ten winning streak during the 2017-18 season.
“You want to build momentum,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You don’t want to become satisfied. Twenty games is a long season. You want to take every game for its face value. It’s the next game on the schedule, so it’s the most important game.
“It was a great road win. It was big for our fans to get that monkey off our back, but for our players, it was a great road win in conference play. Now you’ve got to build on that by coming home and facing Rutgers. There’s no easy ones.”
Illinois is playing with more confidence coming off a stellar defensive performance in beating Purdue 63-37 and its comeback road win at Wisconsin. Those successes against power conference teams have driven that confidence, but the losses to the likes of Miami, Maryland, Missouri and Michigan State were enlightening as well.
“Those losses, we learned from them,” sophomore guard Alan Griffin said. “It kind of showed. At Maryland, we didn’t dig it out. ... Everybody was locked in and in the moment (at Wisconsin). We weren’t coming out of there without a dub.
“We needed that road win. We talked about the road win — how big it could be for us — and how much momentum we could get with this little streak we’ve got going on.”
Illinois’ road win at Wisconsin was one of four in the Big Ten so far this season. Rutgers (at Nebraska), Wisconsin (at Ohio State) and Michigan State (at Northwestern) have the others. That makes not losing at home an even greater point of emphasis. If nobody else is, the Illini can’t either.
“We talk about in the offseason every game is going to be a two- or three-possession game at the end,” Underwood said. “You’ve got to be able to execute. You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be able to withstand those. The environment (at home) helps. The culture helps. The fans help. We’ve got great fans, and we put a lot of people in this arena every night. There’s no doubt it energizes our guys.”
Suffice it to say, the Illini have a clear understanding of the importance of defending their home court.
“Knowing that a team knows if they come to State Farm Center that it’s going to be hard to get a win, that’s the identity we’re trying to build,” Dosunmu said.
“The road wins, I feel like that separates the good teams from the bad,” Griffin added.
“Good teams win at home,” Cockburn finished. “That’s been my mindset the whole time since I’ve been here. We have to come out and make sure we play our best at home.”