Player grades: Shorthanded Illinois shows promise in 10-point victory over Notre Dame


Sydney Laput

Illinois junior Kofi Cockburn shoots a floater during the team’s 82-72 win over Notre Dame at State Farm Center on Monday.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and without point guard Andre Curbelo or Austin Hutcherson, Illinois played host to the Fighting Irish and won a well-played game, 82-72.

Earlier Monday afternoon, Brad Underwood expressed that he would likely be without Curbelo, Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison and Benjamin-Bosmans Verdonk. Curbelo stayed out with an injury, but the other three dressed. Grandison and Frazier played significant minutes off the bench, though Bosmans-Verdonk didn’t see the floor.

With players on the floor ill and some who hadn’t practiced in over a week, the Illini still found a way to control the game, going ahead by as many as 16 points to earn a 10-point win. Kofi Cockburn once again led the Illini with 28 points and eight rebounds, and Alfonso Plummer had another impressive outing, putting up 21 points of his own. 

Coming together

This isn’t clever or anything, but this is what Illinois showed tonight. They’re learning how to play together, and players are stepping up when they’re needed most.

Freshman RJ Melendez entered the starting lineup tonight out of nowhere and played a very good game. He was scrappy defensively, covering Notre Dame’s top scorer at times, and was also efficient in 2/2 shooting from 3-point range, finishing with six points.

Da’Monte Williams was throwing up at halftime and still ended the game with five points and continued to make hustle plays and play great defense. That’s the definition of a leader.

Grandison hadn’t been in contact with Underwood or the team in nine days due to illness, and Frazier hadn’t practiced since the team traveled to Kansas City for a tournament. They finished with nine and seven points, respectively.

Monster Kofi

Kofi showed once again tonight why he is one of, if not the, best player in the country. The big man just dominated.

After putting up 38 points the game prior, Cockburn delivered once again, controlling the paint against the Fighting Irish and scoring at ease throughout the game. He was 11/16 from the field and 6/9 from the free-throw line.

Without another great center on the team, Cockburn is going to have to continue this play, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. He’s in good shape, with another 32 minutes of game time tonight, and is one of the major keys to Illinois being great this year.

Kofi Cockburn: A-

And why not start with the big man? He was awesome. Having a big that can dominate almost every game he plays in is something Illinois is not used to, but Cockburn is making it real easy for Illini fans to enjoy.

He made some bad plays on defense at different times and wasn’t able to hit some shots down the stretch, but in the grand scheme of things, those were very minor.

He was efficient, controlled the paint and took advantage of a team that didn’t know how to guard him. Good stuff.

Alfonso Plummer: A-

Well done again, Plummer. I liked the defense again tonight, and another 20-piece is great to see after a rough start to the year. 

He wasn’t super efficient, shooting 5/15 from the field and 3/11 from three, but those percentages should both rise.

He got to the rim, hit some free throws late and was able to cash in three 3-pointers at needed times. Expect his shooting to continue, and more scoring off the dribble is also great to see out of the Utah transfer.

Coleman Hawkins: D+

Not the greatest game ever out of Hawkins. He got into foul trouble minutes into the game, and in that time let Notre Dame’s best shooter get wide open for two threes, both of which he made.

Hawkins finished with four points, 2/3 from the field and 0/1 from three, but did have an exciting lob dunk to spark the crowd.

His defense improved later, but he’s got to stay out of foul trouble and play better defense to earn more minutes on a Brad Underwood-coached team. He’ll continue to start. 

RJ Melendez: B+

Loved what I saw from him tonight. He even rolled his ankle at one point but still continued to fight and play good defense.

He hit his threes, played good defense and stepped up as a freshman unexpectedly. He did only play 14 minutes, which is why he didn’t get an “A” grade, but it is encouraging to see him perform the way he did.

Damonte Williams: B+

It’s weird to see someone who only scored four points get this high of a grade, but Williams’ role on Illinois isn’t to score a lot of points.

Despite being under the weather and not starting the second half due to throwing up at the break, he still played 35 minutes, shot 1/2 from three, hit a free throw late and, most importantly, played awesome defense. He also had six rebounds and five assists.

Trent Frazier/Jacob Grandison: B-

I’m putting them in the same category because they were in very similar situations, and even though Frazier played a lot more minutes, they get the same grade.

Grandison was 3/4 from the field, all from three, with four rebounds and assists. Trent was less efficient, shooting 3/7 from the field and 1/5 from three with six assists. Both played pretty good defense but definitely showed signs of fatigue after not practicing. Still, very impressive to see the two perform the way they did.

Luke Goode: B

1/2 from the field, both shots being 3-pointers. He only played 12 minutes, but he gets the grade because of his hustle. He plays good defense, leads huddles as a freshman and had an awesome hustle play on a jump ball that hyped up the crowd.

He and Melendez are two freshman that the Illini should look forward to watching in the coming years.

Omar Payne: D

Only six minutes, which shows where he’s at in practice and on the court. He usually plays very good defense yet did a little of that tonight. He also lost his man once and gave up an easy bucket. 

He didn’t score, and his only stat was a block. The Illini will need way more from Payne this year, especially in the scenario where Cockburn gets into foul trouble.

Coaching: A

Brad and staff had their team ready, even with limited players in practice this week and multiple players not at 100% for their own reasons.

Major credit to the staff for preparing their team, adjusting on offense throughout the game to get Kofi more touches and trusting the freshman. 


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