Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
December 9, 2022
Illinois is 7-2 coming off of their biggest win in a non-conference game in years - if not decades. Tuesday night they beat the number 2 ranked Texas Longhorns in an overtime win in the Jimmy V Classic.
As we savor this moment, let’s pause to think about the players, where they’re at and their contributions up to this point in the season.
Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon
Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon are NBA guys playing college ball. While they may have an off day here and there shooting the ball, they both do so much on the glass, on the defensive end, and as playmakers for others that they are net positives even in their worst games. These are the types of athletes that Illinois rarely has, and why the Illini play such an exciting style of basketball.
Consider Hawkins stats...
As to his triple double against Syracuse? Just getting 10 assists in any game is impressive enough. But to get along with double digit points and double-digit rebounds as a 6’10” big? I don’t know anyone who saw that coming.
Now consider Shannon's stats...
Both Hawkins and Shannon pass the "eye test" for improved play, their stats are significantly better this year, and their impact on the team goes even beyond their statistical success. Barring an utter collapse to end this season, we can expect a well-earned position in the draft for these two players in 2023.
RJ Melendez got off to a slow start during the first four games of the season, but since then he’s found his place within the offense and has become way more aggressive on the glass. While he still needs to tighten his handles, he is a load to handle in transition. His jumper is starting to look like what we saw in his limited minutes last season. While Texas wasn’t his best shooting performance from deep (1-4), in the past five games he’s 9-21 from 3 (43%). This compares to 3-14 (21%) for the first four games of the season.
Over the years it’s been rare for Illinois to have freshmen come in and hit the ground running with a double-digit scoring average. Since Underwood has arrived, there has been an uptick with Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili fitting the bill. In the decade prior to Underwood's hiring, only Jalen Coleman-Lands and DJ Richardson were able to average double-digits as freshmen. So far this season Jayden Epps is on the short list of players who have been this effective on the offensive end of the court – and, unlike most of the players listed above, he’s doing it while playing on a good team.
Epps is a “bucket” and continues to score almost immediately whenever he gets off the bench. While he unfortunately got into foul trouble in front of his “home crowd” during the Maryland road game, he was still confident enough to take the potential go ahead bucket. Coming into that game, Epps was averaging 11 points in 24.6 minutes per game, but due to touch fouls that were called on him (and Mayer), it took him out of the rhythm of the game and forced him to sit almost immediately after getting on the court.
He bounced back against Texas by providing 11 points, scoring the last five points the Illini scored in regulation. He hit a key three pointer and sank two free throws with eight seconds left to tie the game at 68-68. Not bad for a freshman in Madison Square Garden on national television.
Dain Dainja, currently a backup post player, is a huge upgrade from what Illinois had last year in Omar Payne and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. He is similar to Bezhanishvili from two years ago, but with more upside potential. He provides similar low post scoring but is a better rebounder and arguably a better defender (this could partially be due to the better defensive pieces around him). His weaknesses are similar to Bezhanishvili’s - free throw shooting and an inability to stretch the floor.
Sencire Harris wasn’t a composite top 100 kid but was arguably the key in winning the UCLA game by turning up the pressure. He has shot much better from 3 (37.5%) than most thought coming into the year. While he wasn’t much of a presence during the Maryland or Syracuse games, during his 18 minutes in the Texas match he scored 5 points, nabbed 2 offensive rebounds, and had 2 big time blocks while consistently hounding the Texas ball handlers.
The Freshman Class
At this point in the season, the freshmen class has exceeded expectations with the exception of Skyy Clark and Ty Rodgers, who are touched on below.
Unfortunately, on top of Goode’s injury, his replacement starter Matt Mayer has been dealing with a back injury. This has led to lower levels of production for the forward as his high-risk/high reward play style has turned out more risk than reward.
His mobility has clearly been affected by the back issues and – as a result – his rebounding, three-point shooting, and overall shooting percentage have declined. While this injury may not necessarily get better as the season goes on, the hope is that with Goode back, Illinois will rely on him less than what they’ve had so far. This will give Mayer some much needed rest and put him on the road to recovery.
Skyy Clark, coming off an injury and given his role, is more a victim of unrealistic expectations than anything else. He has proven to be reliable as a distributor, shows strong defense against much bigger opponents, can be aggressive when needed, and is a vital cog in Illinois’ rotation.
For a kid coming off and ACL surgery, Clark doesn’t play with any hesitancy. He just needs a bit of time to be back to full strength. He’s still adapting to his role, but as the season continues, he’s likely to show more comfort at picking and choosing his own shot within the offense. The fact that he is currently deferring to veteran players and getting them into rhythm first and foremost shows some maturity for him as a freshman.
Ty Rodgers was heralded as a “do it all” style forward, but thus far in the season he’s struggled in almost every facet of the game. At this point, it looks like he will benefit from an off-season of work to get to the contributions most were expecting this year. Simply put, he needs to slow down. Catch the ball and read the defense before rushing to the basket. Take the time needed to get the best shot. As an example, his one and only shot in the Texas game was an air ball from three-point range. While it’s good to see that level of confidence in taking a three, a smarter shot would have been to take a shot from closer range to get himself into an early rhythm.
Above all, he needs to work on his shot – including his free throws. This is a “must do” – not only if he wants to be an NBA player, but also just to be a reliable college player. This is going to be a project for Rodgers. It’s also going to be a test for the entire coaching staff, as Rodgers' development will be a barometer for how well they can develop wing players moving forward.
It would take the biggest sophomore jump in the history of Illinois basketball for him to become the “2 and Done” player he was expected to be. Realistically, that was probably too much pressure on him in the first place.
Luke Goode was expected to make a huge impact this season. There were even rumors he could be pushing into the starting lineup. But, with him breaking his ankle in the scrimmage against Kansas, Goode is now out until January at a minimum. With his willingness to do the dirty work, provide spacing from the three, and his understanding of his role on the team, his presence is dearly missed at the moment.
While this isn’t an optimal situation for Goode - or the team in general - it does open up an opportunity to see the full potential of other players on the team. There are players where expectations were high and they’re getting it done, players who are exceeding expectations, and, as always, a few frustrations.
This takes us back to the beginning. The Illini are 7-2 and have just defeated the #2 team in the country outside of Champaign Urbana for the second time in Coach Underwood's tenure. It is also the second time in the history of Illini basketball history this has ever happened. Take a second to appreciate the moment. The staff and players don't have that luxury. They have to get ready for the next opponent.
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