CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois may have had stumbled out of the gates during nonconference play, but the Illini certainly looked ready for the start of Big Ten play.
Illinois routed Rutgers 86-51 in Friday’s Big Ten opener at State Farm Center, one of two conference games in December before the resumption of nonconference play. The Illini (6-2, 1-0 Big Ten) limited Rutgers (4-4, 0-1 Big Ten) to 30.9% shooting, while Illinois continued its hot shooting from distance, making 12 of 33 from three (36.4%). Illinois has made 23 of 60 threes (38.3%).
Alfonso Plummer scored 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting, his fourth-straight game of 20-plus points. Jacob Grandison scored 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting off the bench, while Kofi Cockburn recorded his 31st career double-double with 13 points and a season-high 15 rebounds and continued his improvement as a facilitator, tying a career-high with two assists for the third time in four games.
Jaden Jones was the lone Rutgers player in double figures with 10 points.
Illinois got off to a sloppy start with six turnovers in the first 6:14. But after taking an 8-7 lead, Illinois went on a 10-0 run — highlighted by seven points from Alfonso Plummer — to take an 18-7 lead. Jacob Grandison then went on a heater, scoring 12 of Illinois’ next 16 points to build the lead to 34-18.
Illinois then made seven free throws during the final 3:32 to take a 43-23 halftime lead, limiting Rutgers to 29% shooting in the first half. Rutgers scored just one field goal during an eight-minute stretch early in the half and then went 1-for-8 from the field during the last three minutes of the half.
The Illini continued to roll out of half, making 10 of its first 19 shots to build a 70-37 lead. Brad Underwood was able to unload his bench at the final media timeout. Illinois had a season-low 10 turnovers.
What it means: Rutgers isn’t very good after losing Myles Johnson (UCLA) and Jacob Young (Oregon) to the transfer portal, but Illinois is starting to look like the Big Ten contender we all thought they’d be, absolutely dominating a bottom-half Big Ten team on Friday. The Illini are starting to settle into their roles and play good team ball on both ends. Bigger tests await during the next week, but even without their sophomore point guard, Illinois is starting to look formidable.
Star of the game: He’s consistent. Kofi Cockburn again left the biggest impact on the game, especially as a facilitator. He had several kick-outs of the post that led to points, including a few hockey assists, and the Illini shooters knocked them down. This offense is flowing well through the big man, and he again dominated on the glass, helping Illinois win the battle of the boards 47-33.
Stat of the game: Illinois limited Ron Harper Jr. to a season-low five points, the first time he’s been in single digits, on 1-for-9 shooting. Sophomore Coleman Hawkins, who had been inconsistent on defense this season, used his length to really bother Harper, which was huge with Rutgers’ double-digit scorer Geo Baker out with injury.
Don’t overlook: Omar Payne (seven rebounds in 10 minutes) had his best game as an Illini. By halftime, the Florida transfer big man and former top-50 prospect had his season-high rebound total (five) along with a block. If he can build off that, Illinois may be able to trust it can survive on the court when Cockburn needs a breather.
What’s next: Illinois travels to Iowa for the latest installment of one of the Big Ten’s best recent rivalries with a 6 p.m. Monday tipoff at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (FS1). Iowa (7-0) entered Friday’s game at No. 3 Purdue undefeated — though the Hawkeyes have only played on top-200 team (Virginia) — and with the country’s No. 3 offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Sophomore forward Keegan Murray has taken a huge leap in his second season, averaging 24.6 points (61.9% FG) and 9.0 rebounds. He is a projected first-round pick, while his twin brother, Kris Murray, is second on the team in scoring with 11.7 points per game. Illinois has won three-straight against Iowa but lost the previous five games against the Hawkeyes including the two previous games in Iowa City.