Revived Rutgers looks to extend hot streak vs. No. 12 Illinois
Kofi Cockburn and No. 12 Illinois will try to avoid becoming Rutgers' next upset victim when they visit Piscataway, N.J., on Wednesday.
The Fighting Illini (18-6, 11-3 Big Ten) led the conference by a half-game entering the week, having won five of their past six outings. They possess a national player of the year candidate in Cockburn, and they trounced Rutgers by 35 points when the teams met on Dec. 3.
However, Rutgers (15-9, 9-5) has not been the same team since that beatdown.
The Scarlet Knights have run off three straight wins over Top 25 opponents, building off home wins over Michigan State and Ohio State with a 73-65 upset of then-No. 14 Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., on Saturday.
It was the first time in program history that Rutgers beat three ranked opponents in a row. The win over the Badgers might have been the biggest statement of all because it came on the road, where Rutgers was just 2-7 before Saturday.
"I've been telling you guys, I like this group," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "They practice the right way. They defend, and they did in the second half ... But we've got Illinois next. This whole league is great. Ranked, not ranked, it doesn't matter."
Rutgers' Geo Baker was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Week after averaging 20.5 points and 4.5 assists per game against Ohio State and Wisconsin. He was responsible for the Scarlet Knights' game-winning 10-0 run to beat the Buckeyes -- scoring eight points and assisting on the other two before blocking Ohio State's final shot at the buzzer.
Baker followed that up with 16 points, three assists and two steals against the Badgers, while Ron Harper Jr. led Rutgers with 21 points.
The Illini staved off a comeback effort by Northwestern to secure a 73-66 home win on Sunday. Cockburn went for 19 points and 15 rebounds, bringing his season averages to 21.5 points and 11.4 boards. He is the only player in Division I men's basketball averaging 20 and 10.
But Illinois runs deeper than Cockburn, as three of his teammates average at least 10 points. In addition, against Northwestern, freshman RJ Melendez turned in career highs of 14 points and six rebounds and went 6-for-6 at the free-throw line.
"RJ always gives you something special," Cockburn said. "He just keeps showing you something special each and every day, especially in practice and after practice. He's different, man. He's a different kind of beast. When I watch him, I'm in awe most of the time, just seeing what he's capable of."
Illinois defeated Rutgers 86-51 in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Alfonso Plummer led all scorers with 24 points for the Illini. Cockburn posted 13 points and 15 rebounds and Jacob Grandison scored 16 off the bench. Rutgers trailed by 20 points at halftime and ended up shooting 30.9 percent (21 of 68) on the night.
The Scarlet Knights followed that game by stunning then-No. 1 Purdue on Harper's last-second 3-pointer, and they've found more consistent offense in February to match their defense. During the current three-game winning streak, Rutgers has shot 55.4 percent overall and 44.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
However, Illinois is holding its opponents to 40.1 percent shooting and 31.2 percent from 3-point range on the season.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 15, 2022