Notes, player grades: Illinois men’s basketball survives to avoid upset at Northwestern

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Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Junior center Kofi Cockburn goes up for a dunk during Illinois men’s basketball’s 59-56 win over Northwestern on Saturday. Cockburn led all scorers with 22 points in his return from concussion protocol.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

Despite junior center Kofi Cokburn returning from concussion protocol, Illinois struggled to put up points at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday. Cockburn was able to put up 22 points, but no other Illini was able to reach double figures, allowing Northwestern to keep things close.

With graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer in foul trouble and senior guard Trent Frazier having an off night, Underwood turned to some unfamiliar faces to play big minutes: freshmen guards RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski.

Although the two freshmen haven’t played many big minutes this year, both guards had great nights. Melendez played 16 big minutes while playing great defense and scoring two timely buckets, while Podziemski hit a huge three while Illinois trailed by five points to cut into its deficit with five minutes remaining.

A senior guard Da’Monte Williams’ putback dunk with 1:34 left put Illinois ahead, and they never turned back, ultimately winning 59-56 and avoiding an upset in Evanston.

How about those freshmen?

One game after freshmen guard Luke Goode had his best collegiate performance, Melendez and Podziemski both arguably played theirs.

Melendez subbed in for the first time in the first half and ended up playing almost half the game, scoring six points with three rebounds and an assist. Podz only played six minutes, but his ginormous three in the second half cut the Northwestern lead from five points down to two, giving Illinois a needed spark of energy. He finished with five points.

Goode didn’t do it on Saturday, but all three freshmen have now played great in one of the last two games, making the future seem bright for the Illini. It’s hard for freshmen to get big minutes on Illinois’ team this year, but they have all performed recently when needed.

Three-point slump

Illinois hasn’t been shooting the ball from behind the arc well recently, especially compared to how it shot to start the season. Against Northwestern, the Illini shot 27.8%.

You love coming out of the game with a Big Ten road win, but not shooting the ball well led to Illinois not reaching the 60-point mark.

Frazier shot 2-6 from three, Plummer went 2-5 but Jacob Grandison was 0-3 and Goode and Coleman Hawkins were 0-1. With Kofi back, Illinois still should have won, which they did. But if the shooting slump continues, Illinois won’t win some big games it has coming up against good defenses in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Let’s get into some grades.

Da’Monte Williams: A

My player of the game.

So what if he only had five points? Two of them came on his putback dunk to give Illinois the lead late, which was probably the play of the game. The super senior came up clutch for his team.

Williams also added nine rebounds and three assists, with, of course, great defense. He switched onto Northwestern forward Pete Nance late in the game, who was scoring the ball real well for the Wildcats, but after the switch defensively slowed down.

What a game from the ultimate glue guy. Really nice to see him make a huge play late with usual scorers not playing well.

Kofi Cockburn: A

The game’s leading scorer gets a high grade in his first game back after missing two contests with a concussion. The junior big man led all scorers with 22 points, while he also grabbed nine rebounds.

He played 30 minutes while shooting 10-17 and was the only Illini in double figures. He also avoided foul trouble.

It wasn’t his best performance ever, but he played very well considering the circumstances and his team wouldn’t have gotten the win without him. Good warmup for Kofi with Wisconsin coming up, which he’ll have to have a good game against for Illinois to win.

Trent Frazier: C

Although he wasn’t efficient on offense, shooting 2-10 on the night, Frazier was still able to impact the game on defense.

Trent seemed rattled by the rowdy Northwestern crowd, air-balling a 3-point attempt early in the game. However, his defense on Northwestern’s skilled backcourt players helped limit the Wildcats’ offense. He also played all 40 minutes.

Even when he doesn’t play well on one side of the ball, Frazier will always play as many minutes as he can due to his defensive effort.

Jacob Grandison: D

Another off night for Grandison. I sense a recurring pattern here.

Grandison had a great first 12 games and earned his way into the starting lineup, but he has really been struggling as of late, averaging an inefficient seven points over the last seven games. He shot 1-6 on Saturday for two points.

He did add six points and four assists while making some nice defensive stands, so his grade isn’t as low as it could be. But Grandison needs to get out of his slump soon, because he’ll have to step up eventually with a schedule that isn’t getting any easier coming up.

RJ Melendez/Brandin Podziemski: A-

I kind of like doing this joint grade for two guys who had similar outcomes, so RJ and Podz get this game. And it’s some high praise.

The freshmen combined for 11 points, three boards and an assist in 21 total minutes, each making very clutch plays, especially Podz’s three-pointer.

Don’t expect these two to play big minutes in every game, especially not when Frazier and Plummer are playing well, but it was awesome to see the freshmen step up when their numbers were called.

Alfonso Plummer: C-

Northwestern head coach Chris Collins had a plan to stop Plummer, and he felt the effects. He scored nine points on only six shots, but he shot efficiently when he was able to get his shot up. 2-5 from three.

Plummer also picked up two early fouls in the first half, and finished with four, so he only played in 19 minutes.

This is a bad game for Plummer, and it really wasn’t all that bad. He was second in the team with nine points despite the limited minutes, and the sharpshooter should play more minutes in the coming games.

Coleman Hawkins: D+

Another non-effective night for Coleman. In nine minutes, the sophomore had two points, one rebound, one assist and steal. He missed his lone free-throw attempt.

Hawkins just isn’t doing a lot. He is capable of playing good defense, which he has showcased at different times during the season, but head coach Brad Underwood doesn’t trust him to be a factor offensively against big competition, so his tick is limited.

You wonder if Coleman will find a way to improve considerably on either side of the ball to earn more minutes, because if not, his time on the court will stay low and he’ll continue to be frustrated.

Omar Payne: B

He only played eight minutes, but Payne played well in his time on the floor at Northwestern.

He scored two points on his only shot attempt, while adding two rebounds and three blocks on defense. He continues to play very good defense.

With Kofi back, Payne won’t see the floor a ton, but he continues to make the most of his situation and is fitting into his role very nicely.

Final note

I didn’t give out many high grades for Illinois’ performance against Northwestern, but the team came together and found a way to come out of Evanston with a win.

They didn’t shoot well, didn’t reach 60 points and played in a loud environment, but they still earned a Big Ten road win to stay in first place in the conference.

@JPietsch14

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