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Illinois Basketball: 3 Observations From Rutgers

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In a high-paced shootout with Iowa, the Illini showed one way they can play. On Saturday against Rutgers, they showed another. After trailing at half, Illinois’ defense powered a 19-0 second-half haymaker to a relatively comfortable 69-60 win.

1. Dr. Coleman and Mr. Hawkins

After an 0-7 game against one of the worst defenses in the conference, it was only right that Coleman Hawkins was the best player on the floor against the best defense in the conference. Hawkins racked up 18 points and eight rebounds with four assists as well. With the offense in the mud in the first half, Hawkins turned up his aggression offensively with ten of his 13 shot attempts in the second stanza. He’s been a player under quite the microscope this year especially on that end.

Simply put, when Hawkins is on he’s one of the best players in the conference, and in my opinion the country. It wasn’t a perfect game from him, with five turnovers, but every game he impacts on the glass and defensively. He wears his emotions on his sleeve at all times, but that fire fuels the engine required to play 37 massive minutes in a drag out brawl in the Big Ten.

2. Strength in Numbers

When Big Ten coaches talk about Illinois being the most talented team in the conference, it isn’t just the headliners like Matthew Mayer, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Hawkins. It’s the depth of talent this team has on the roster. It starts with Dain Dainja, who was able to get Rutgers Center Cliff Omoruyi in foul trouble as well as provide a scoring outlet, finishing with 15 points. It continues with Jayden Epps, who struggled this game with Rutgers long and aggressive defense but showed his ability to get downhill even against such a stingy team.

Where it shows the most is on the bench. With Rutgers down a starter, Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris provided major energy on both ends of the floor. It seemed for a couple minutes in that 19-0 run that Rodgers was trying to one up himself for best defensive rebound. Harris made a big three toward the end of the half, and with Epps struggling he stepped up. There are still freshman moments from them, but the trajectory is clear.

3. 40 Good Minutes

We’ve seen just about every side of this Illinois team so far this season. They’ve struggled, they’ve exploded, they’ve fought and they’ve at times folded. What we have not seen yet is 40 good minutes. This team has a lot of talent. It has a coach that knows how to win in this conference. They may only be allowed to have one guy make jump shots a game, but they have multiple guys who can get hot. They are able to do things like hold a team scoreless for 10 minutes straight. With Luke Goode making an appearance today they will be as close to full strength as they can be. A Big Ten regular season banner may be out of reach with Purdue continuing to roll along, but this team can still be a lot of fun to watch. One of these days we will get 40 good minutes.

With the win the Illini go to 17-7 and 8-5 in conference. Illinois still has never lost to Rutgers at home and will travel to Penn State on Tuesday.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.

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