Beat writer Scott Richey will continue to provide updates throughout today's Illinois-Rutgers game. Follow along right here at the LIVE! Report for more of our comprehensive coverage from New Jersey.
The simple change for Illinois with Ayo Dosunmu out for today's game at Rutgers was moving Andres Feliz back into the starting lineup. The senior guard started the first eight games of the season alongside Dosunmu and Trent Frazier before Illinois coach Brad Underwood shifted Feliz back to the sixth man role where he thrived last year.
Feliz for Dosunmu, though, isn't the only change for the Illini today. Alan Griffin will get the start this afternoon against the Scarlet Knights. On a player-for-player basis, Griffin is replacing Giorgi Bezhanishvili. It will be Da'Monte Williams, though, who will play the 4.
This is the second career start for #Illini sophomore guard Alan Griffin. He previously started against Xavier in the Maui Invite last season.— Scott Richey (@srrichey) February 15, 2020
Rutgers is a four-point favorite for today's game. That's one more point than the KenPom projection is giving the Scarlet Knights, who are 16-0 at The RAC this season. The KenPom projection has it a 66-63 game in Rutgers' favor.
Honestly? I'll be surprised if either team gets to 60 points. Illinois won 54-51 last month in Champaign, and these teams are basically defense-first twins. Have you seen the Spider-Man meme with a pair of Spider-Mans pointing at each other? This game is the physical embodiment of that meme in basketball form.
In Big Ten games, Illinois has the third most efficient defense in the conference, while Rutgers has the fourth. The Illini only "struggle" defensively in block percentage, steal percentage and turnovers forced percentage. The Scarlet Knights' issues come with fouling and sending teams to the free throw line too much.
Offensively, neither is all that efficient. Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in conference play in effective field goal percentage at 44.9 percent. That's lower than the Illini's overall season mark (not including Lindenwood game) of 48.6 percent, which ranks 216th nationally. Rutgers' offensive woes in Big Ten play are kind of widespread, with struggles at the free throw and three-point lines.
Ayo Dosunmu just made his way out on the court during pregame warmups. Pregame warmups he's not participating in because he's ... not dressed for today's game.
Dosunmu is currently sitting on the sideline with junior forward Jacob Grandison, who is sitting out this season. Also not dressed are freshman forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and junior forward Zach Griffith, who are both wearing protective boots on their right and left feet, respectively.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood said Friday that Dosunmu was "day to day" and hadn't practiced this week but had done some work. That changed, sort of, this morning when Underwood told CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein that Dosunmu was a "game time decision."
The decision appears to have been made. Unless this is the biggest head fake of all time from Underwood and Dosunmu will pull his own version of the "Willis Reed" and come back out ready to go when more organized warmups start. I don't actually believe that will happen, but it would make for a great story (so maybe fingers crossed for the drama).
Tevian Jones is the first Illinois player (that will play today) on the court. The #Illini are in their road blues.— Scott Richey (@srrichey) February 15, 2020
Rutgers football isn't the only one with an impressive sound system. Sucker gets LOUD when they crank it up. (cc: @MartinOD64).— Scott Richey (@srrichey) February 15, 2020
Did you know the Louis Brown Athletic Center — better known as The RAC — is the 138th largest arena in Division I basketball? The 8,000-seat arena is the second smallest in the Big Ten ahead of Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, seating just more than half what State Farm Center does.
The RAC sometimes goes by another name — The "Trapezoid of Doom." There's a reason other than it sounding cool. I found this on Wikipedia so I'm sure it's 100 percent accurate: "The building is shaped like a truncated tent with trapezoidal sides on the north and south ends."
A couple fun facts to get us going here in New Jersey with tip about 90 minutes away.
There's been a bit of an internal argument here at the LIVE! Report on what has constituted a "must win" game for Illinois this season.
Like last month's first game against Purdue at State Farm Center. Was an early January game really "must win" for the Illini? No, but losing it would have made Illinois 0-4 in the Big Ten — the same type of hole Brad Underwood's teams dug themselves the previous two seasons.
Illinois beat Purdue in that game. Then won six more (including another against the Boilermakers). The idea of "must win" kind of took a back seat to the fact that, well, the Illini were actually winning games. Lots of them.
February has been less kind to Illinois than January. Consequently, the idea of "must win" is back. Still ranked No. 22 nationally (that almost assuredly changes come Monday), the Illini head into today's game against Rutgers on a three-game losing streak.
Pretty much the epitome of a "must win" situation, which is simply further complicated by Ayo Dosunmu's uncertain status. Underwood called the sophomore guard "day to day" on Friday. This morning? That status was upgraded — one could suppose — to "game time decision" per CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein. Of course, today being gameday makes "game time decision" and "day to day" basically the same thing. Gamesmanship on Underwood's part?
Anyway, here's further reason why the importance of today's game ratchets up a tick Dosunmu on the court or not. A loss in New Jersey — where the Scarlet Knights are unbeaten — could further balloon into five straight come Tuesday's game at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are second only to Maryland in the Big Ten when it comes to hottest team in the conference.
A hypothetical 16-10 record with five games to play puts a significant amount of emphasis on the last couple weeks of the regular season. The Illini's seven-game winning streak in January (chock full of Quadrant I victories) is a terrific buoy to their NCAA tournament chances. Avoiding finishing the regular season with a thud will lessen some of the creeping anxiety that seems to be insinuating itself in the fan base.
So, yeah, today is a must win game for Illinois. We're taking away the quotation marks to eliminate any even a hint that it's not. Beating Rutgers on its home court? Now that's the challenge.