Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
December 18, 2021
Today will be the first meeting every between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the St. Francis of PA Red Flash. The 4-5 Red Flash feature two key players. Josh Cohen is a 6'10" redshirt sophomore. He is currently second in field goal percentage in NCAA Division I statistics rankings based on five made field goals a game. Cohen is averaging 13.3 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game.
The other main cog in the Red Flash machine is fifth-year senior Ramiir Dixon-Conover who leads the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game. He also is ranked 15th in the country with 2.4 steals per game. Against Hartford, he became the sixth player to post at least 13 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in a game against a Division I opponent this season.
While St. Francis will not be the toughest competition the Illini have faced this year, there will still be story lines with major implications during the stretch of games that follow. With Illinois’ line-ups firmly intact at the point guard, center and shooting guard positions, the other two starting positions remain up for grabs. Jacob Grandison, Coleman Hawkins, and Da’Monte Williams have been getting the bulk of the playing time, but none of them have played well enough to lock down starter minutes if someone else were to come along and be productive on the court.
For one of the freshmen to pass them up, they will have to step up. So far, Luke Goode has shown the most promise of the three freshmen with RJ Melendez not far behind. Goode brings high basketball IQ, a good stroke from outside, and is fairly strong at 6’8” and 200 pounds. Melendez may not be as good a shooter, but so far into the season he’s been stronger in that area than many expected. He is also the best play maker of the freshman and may have the highest ceiling overall. It may take some time for him to get used to the system before he can fully display his skillset. Brandin Podziemski hasn’t gotten as much time on the court as Goode and Melendez, but he could be an interesting option if the other wings aren’t able to space the floor on any given night. Podziemski may not be able to play minutes at the point guard position, but his understanding of pace and his improved ball handling gives him potential as a secondary ball handler.
So far into the season, Illinois has dealt with adversity - and lots of it. Injuries, illness, and Kofi Cockburn’s 3 game suspension have led to a game-by-game approach for Brad Underwood’s rotations. Outside the uncertainty of Andre Curbelo being able to play, the Illini have figured out who they can depend on. Cockburn has played like the All-American center everyone expected him to be. Trent Frazier has provided toughness and leadership to go along with his two-way play and Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison have provided an offensive spark shooting-wise from the three as well as the line. Outside of these four, the play has been rather underwhelming barring a game here or there. Specifically, Hawkins, Williams and Omar Payne need to step up.
Hawkins needs to clean up the turnovers that result from trying to be fancy. He will continue to lose the coach’s confidence by making poor choice and threaten his own playing time. At 6’10” he should be able to make better entry passes into the post and make more of an impact on the glass.
Williams’ shooting percentage from deep was inevitably going to fall as it wasn’t sustainable for him to remain the number one 3-point shooter in Division One basketball. That said, he needs to be respectable from outside and can’t continue to get technical fouls. Illinois needs tough play, but not at the expense of the opposing team getting free points. Over the last two years he’s built a reputation as a “a loose cannon” – whether that’s founded or unfounded is up to anybody’s own interpretation but he has to stay in control of his emotions.
Payne has had a rough start to his Illinois career. He may be less relied upon due to having Cockburn in the middle but having a total non-factor on the offensive end can put strain on that bench unit. Though most would be happy if he shows competence on the defensive end.
Illinois is bigger, faster, and stronger than St. Francis Pennsylvania. With no disrespect to the Red Flash, this should be a tune-up game for Illinois to refine their lineup and depth chart.
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