Illinois has dealt with uncertainty about its lineup at times during the first few weeks of the season.
But the Fighting Illini (5-2) go into their Big Ten Conference opener against Rutgers (4-3) on Friday night at Champaign, Ill., knowing they have one of the most productive players in the country.
With that, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell figures his team has one of the biggest challenges of any team at this stage of the season.
Illinois center Kofi Cockburn has posted 26.8 points per game, unofficially leading the nation as he’s only played in four games to date.
Pikiell called the task against the Illini tough because it involves “the best player arguably in the country. We have our work cut out for us.”
That will be a key matchup for Rutgers center Clifford Omoruyi.
“Cliff is going to be tested in a lot of ways and his basketball IQ will really come into fruition,” Pikiell said.
Both teams represented the Big Ten well in this week’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Rutgers defeated Clemson, while Illinois knocked off Notre Dame.
There’s a complex element for Illinois, which has won three consecutive games. Coach Brad Underwood has used six different starting lineups already this season. Freshman RJ Melendez was a first-time starter in the Notre Dame game.
Jacob Grandison, who had been ill, and Trent Frazier, who dealt with a knee injury, came off the bench in the Notre Dame game.
“This group took a huge step in being connected and being together,” Underwood said.
The presence of Frazier, who had seven points and six assists, has been viewed as crucial.
“It means the world,” Cockburn said. “He gives us leadership. Everything that you need for winning.”
Rutgers relies on Ron Harper Jr., who has four double-doubles this season. He had a season-high 23 points against Clemson.
The Scarlet Knights might be cranking up the offense at a good time. Two of their three highest-scoring games have come in the past two games.
“This team is getting better,” Pikiell said. “We’re going to be a team to beat. We’re going to keep improving.”
Illinois has won nine straight home games. This season’s four home victories have all come by nine or more points.
Rutgers has never won in five all-time visits to Illinois. The last meeting between the teams came with the Illini’s 90-68 romp in March’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
–Field Level Media