No. 19 Rutgers readies for marquee matchup vs. No. 13 Illinois

NCAA

How rare is the air Rutgers breathes these days? When the Scarlet Knights bumped from No. 21 to No. 19 in this week’s Associated Press poll, it marked the school’s first appearance in the Top 20 since March 1979.

But as veteran climbers know, the challenges get tougher as the air gets thinner.

Starting with Sunday’s visit from No. 13 Illinois in Piscataway, N.J., Rutgers faces five Top 25 foes in a 21-day stretch. While this might sound like a ridiculous gauntlet, the Scarlet Knights (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) have earned the right to feel like equals.

With seven of their top eight players back from last year’s team that would have earned the school’s first NCAA bid since 1991, fifth-year head coach Steve Pikiell added top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi in the middle and kept right on building.

“It’s the first time we’ve got some veteran guys and even our younger players have logged a lot of minutes, which is a really good thing for us,” Pikiell said. “Our versatility is really great this year. We can move guys around. They all know all the positions.”

Rutgers claimed one small milestone Monday night at Maryland — winning its Big Ten opener for the first time since joining the league in 2014-15.

“Players like Geo (Baker) and Ron (Harper Jr.) who have been here a long time while we’ve been trying to take those steps to being one of the really good programs in the Big Ten — those guys understand the struggles and trying to embrace the opportunities that are in front of us,” Pikiell said. “But we have a stretch here playing some unbelievable teams. “

Illinois (5-2, 1-0) definitely understands.

Blessed with a talented returning team, Illinois coach Brad Underwood opted to give his team as many prime-time tests as possible.

Since this month began, the Illini have faced No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis, then-No. 10 Duke in Durham, N.C., and now-No. 16 Missouri in Columbia.

The Illini reached No. 5 in the AP poll — their first visit to the top five since their magical 2004-05 run to the NCAA title game — but was bounced by Baylor. Illinois hammered Duke before getting edged by Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights Classic, but pounded Minnesota by 27 points Tuesday night as they limited the Gophers to 27.5 percent shooting.

“It was get back to basics, get back to the identity of who we are,” Underwood said. “I think we had been scheming a little too much defensively. Trent Frazier literally just said, ‘Coach, I got him. You don’t need to do all the switching. I got him.’

“Ayo (Dosunmu) came over to me after the Missouri game, sat down with me before a practice and said, ‘We’re getting back to it.’ When you get that kind of veteran leadership from your two veteran guards, I felt great.”

Frazier did most of the work against Minnesota’s Marcus Carr, who entered the game averaging more than 23 points — but finished with 16 on 3 of 13 shooting.

Rutgers’ Harper enters Sunday’s game averaging 23.2 points per game. Harper is much bigger than Carr and Frazier, which suggests Dosunmu and senior swingman Da’Monte Williams will be charged with slowing him, but the task will be similarly large.

It’s more likely Frazier will be tasked with slowing Baker, who returned to the floor Monday at Maryland after missing three games with a sprained ankle. The senior point guard contributed 15 points, three rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes off the bench.

“He says he’s feeling good,” Pikiell said. “We’ve got to start getting the pop back in his legs so he starts jumping the way he used to, but I think he’s headed on a good path.”

–Field Level Media

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