Illinois @ Rutgers preview
Jersey Mike's Arena
Last Meeting ( Feb 11, 2023 ) Rutgers 60, Illinois 69
No. 24 Illinois leaves the state for the first time this season Saturday when it visits Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J.
The Fighting Illini (5-1) open Big Ten play in a matchup of two of the conference's early defensive leaders.
"I've been really pleased with this group," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "I've been really pleased with the improvements we've made. Now it's what we really play for -- these league games and to put ourselves in position to win them."
Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell has his guard up ahead of facing the Illini.
"Illinois is a Top 25 team," Pikiell said. "They always seem to be every time we play. They're one of the most physical teams in the conference. It's going to be a tough, physical game."
Rutgers and Illinois pride themselves on their defense and rebounding, which makes this opener a perfect pairing.
The Illini get it done by pacing the country in field-goal defense (34.0 percent), while the Scarlet Knights rank right behind at 34.6 percent.
Both teams are getting stellar seasons from their best players.
Terrence Shannon Jr., an absurdly athletic wing in his second season since transferring from Texas Tech, averages 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point range.
Rutgers big man Cliff Omoruyi has produced 11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
One more crucial way in which Illinois and Rutgers are similar? They've both fared well without one of their critical frontcourt players, and both teams figure to make a big jump once they return.
Illinois senior Coleman Hawkins, who scored 14 points to help the Illini defeat No. 1 Kansas in an exhibition game, has missed the last three games due to tendinitis in his knee. Underwood hopes to have him back for Illinois' huge eight-day stretch -- which includes No. 13 FAU on Tuesday and No. 10 Tennessee next Saturday.
"Coleman has been extremely committed, extremely dedicated to getting back," Underwood said. "It was my decision to hold him. It was not his. He wanted to try to keep playing. But over time, when you don't practice effectively, you're not going to play very effectively. We're making progress. I just don't know if we're where we need to be yet."
Rutgers, meanwhile, anxiously awaits the return of senior forward Mawot Mag. He is working his way back from a torn ACL in February.
In the offseason, Pikiell said the 6-foot-7 Mag was just as important defensively as Caleb McConnell - who happened to win the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year award. Mag has been part of practices and shootarounds this season, but no games despite being listed as questionable prior to each one.
"I thought he was very close," Pikiell said. "When he tells me he's ready, he's ready. It'll be nice to have him, whenever that is."
--Field Level Media