By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
December 2, 2021
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Through a first month of the 2021-22 regular season that has seen injuries, sickness and inconsistent lineups, two Illinois freshmen have been able to find contributing roles off the bench.
Among a recruiting class that wasn’t nationally ranked in the Top 25 by either 247Sports.com or Rivals.com, Luke Goode and RJ Melenedez have averaged double-digit minutes on a team that returned three veteran starters, is counting on the emergence of sophomores Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins and brought in two transfers from Power Five Conference programs.
“The freshmen, RJ and Luke, are giving us huge minutes,” Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier said Monday night. “They’re doing big things. They’re not afraid of the moment. We’re going down the right direction.”
With Illinois (5-2) still suffering from certain illnesses and injuries forcing Underwood into a hodgepodge of lineup combinations, the freshmen duo will likely be used early on Friday night when the Illini open Big Ten Conference play at State Farm Center against Rutgers (6 p.m. CST, ESPN2).
In the 82-72 victory over Notre Dame, it was three-point shots from Melendez and followed up directly by Goode to give the Illini crowd hope that a physically depleted Illinois roster wasn’t going to drop another non-conference game to an unranked opponent.
Goode, a consensus four-star prospect out of Indiana who averaged 19.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 40.4% from 3-point range as a senior at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., has averaged 15 minutes a game in the four games he’s been active.
Goode has already established himself at the wing as a consistent shooter and being able to pick up the Illini’s defensive fundamentals that usually hold back freshmen from logging a lot of time on the court. What Illinois head coach Brad Underwood has found about Goode that immediately translates from high school to college basketball is the level of grit and sandpaper to the 6-foot-7 forward’s game.
“He doesn’t lack for confidence,” Underwood said. “Luke is a tough hombre. He can respond to anything. Everything about him is competitive. I think it’s all the way you’re brought up. His dad was a football player, and his mindset is he’s a football player. He’s very confident, he’s very smart. He’s not afraid to take a shot. So, he’s just an ultra-competitive kid, and raised that way.”
Goode finished Monday night with three points, two rebounds and a steal that led to a Trent Frazier transition basket against Notre Dame after the freshman was forced into action early following Coleman Hawkins’ two first-half fouls.
Melendez, who has still found himself averaging 10.4 minutes per game this season despite starting the season behind Jacob Grandison, Coleman Hawkins and Da’Monte Williams on the team’s 3-4 depth chart spots, was able to get his first career start Monday night vs. Notre Dame. Melendez, originally from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, finished that effort with six points, one rebounds, one block and an assist in 14 minutes.
“It’s not easy doing what we’re asking them to do. We’re a good basketball team, come in and play every day, be a part of the scouting report, be a part of playing against other really good players,” Underwood said. “So much of what you do as a freshman is about you. You have to put that on the backburner and get involved with being a great teammate and being a part of something. It’s not easy because everything they’re doing has got their head spinning from going to college for the first time to new classes to new friends to a new coach to a new system to a new level. Everything is new. These guys work. They put in a ton of time and get better every day, I was really, really impressed.”
Melendez came to Illinois from Florida after averaging 24.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.3 blocks as a senior on route to being the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association (SIAA) Player of the Year. Initially, because of the Illini’s returning depth, Melendez was seen as a developmental piece to this roster but circumstances have forced the 6-foot-7 forward into immediate action.
Melendez is used to the spotlight of world-class amateur basketball after playing in the 2019 U17 Centrobasket Championships and averaging 9.2 points and 3.2 rebounds while helping Puerto Rico to a silver medal. The Illini coaching staff is hopeful Melendez can use his athleticism and consistent shooting touch to help Illinois as they embark on the two-game conference game period (vs. Rutgers and at Iowa) less than five weeks into his college career.
“They know what they’re doing,” Illinois senior guard Alfonso Plummer said about the freshman. “They want to help the team every time they step on the court so we respect that and we appreciate that. We’re always going to find a way to help them adapt to the system.”
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