Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball home opener

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James Hoeck

Forward Dain Dainja prepares to pass the ball during last night’s game against Eastern Illinois. Dainja achieved his first double-double within his 16 minutes of court time during last night’s match.

By Drew Friberg, Carson Gourdie, and James Kim

Illinois trailed just 18 seconds in its opening blowout win of the season against Eastern Illinois. Monday night’s win was just five years and some change removed from a loss at the hands of the Panthers in one of Brad Underwood’s first matches in charge. 

Coming a long way since then, Underwood’s roster is now completely different. Giving debuts to eight new players on Monday, Illinois’ new look was on display for the first time. While the new and explosive roster brought much excitement ahead of the season, problems arose with team chemistry and ball retention.

Turnovers are a problem

Despite the 30 point win, Illinois also outscored the Panthers in turnovers. Sporting the fast-paced offense spearheaded by freshman guard Skyy Clark and senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., the Illini’s opening nine minutes were nothing short of sloppy. Turning the ball over six times in the first nine minutes does not bode well for a team without a huge presence in the front court.

While the team showed capabilities to get the ball back pretty easily, with 10 steals and 53 rebounds, ball retention against better sides is a must moving forward. With UCLA and better opposition in the early weeks of the season, problems will arise quickly if turnover issues are not sorted out.

Coleman Hawkins: A

Coleman played Monday night like he had something to prove. Obviously hearing the offseason buzz regarding his scoring ability, the junior forward played his best game to date, registering 23 points and shooting 5-8 from three. 

Hawkins had 12 rebounds on the night, good for a double-double in his first big start at the five. Inside scoring remains a huge question mark, as he only scored six points not from beyond the arc or at the line, but a solid first outing nonetheless. 

If the Illini want to surpass a second round tournament exit this season, a performance of this nature should be expected from Hawkins.

Dain Dainja: A

Dainja was one of Underwood’s offseason question marks. The Baylor transfer hasn’t played in two seasons and has put on a significant amount of muscle this offseason. Not getting the start, he was one of the first off the bench, yet played only 16 minutes.

In those 16 minutes however, Dainja looked like that inside threat that could be relied on for big boards and some points here and there. He came on and was always a presence, notching his first double-double as an Illini, grabbing 10 boards and 17 points, good for Illinois’ third-highest scorer and top rebounder.

Whether or not Dainja’s presence will be felt against more disciplined opponents remains to be seen, but a 16 minute double-double against a team with great size isn’t too shabby.

RJ Melendez: C-

Of any Illini to touch the floor Monday night, Melendez’s performance was one of the more underwhelming ones. While the sophomore grabbed two steals and three blocks, in 20 minutes he also only managed one point, going 0-5 from the field and missing a free throw. 

Underwood has taken great pride in the amount of hustle his team will have this season, and Melendez characterizes that hustle just as much as anyone possibly could. However, with that hustle, output is needed. If Clark and Epps are going to be much more reluctant to take threes, prioritizing shot creation for others, Melendez needs to be one of those guys who can make a shot if needed. 

When there are guys like Sencire Harris starting on the bench, playing five less minutes but scoring nine points with three steals and a block to his name, what role is Melendez playing in this team that can’t be played by others?

Terrence Shannon Jr.: A

Shannon was a force to be reckoned with on Monday night. The senior guard showcased incredible athletic ability on both sides of the floor, slamming home monster dunks and getting up for huge defensive plays in the paint. 

Shannon was one of the Illini’s quickest players on the court, particularly during transition plays. He led Illinois in the scoring department, finishing the game with 24 points, eight rebounds and two assists. The Texas Tech transfer was also a master at getting to the free throw line, getting fouled on 15 separate occasions. Despite the Illini’s overall free throw struggles Shannon remained consistent, shooting 13-15 from the line. It was an all-around exciting performance for the senior’s official Illini debut.

Skyy Clark: C+

Clark’s ability to impact games wasn’t seen to its full potential against the Panthers. The freshman guard didn’t shoot often and wasn’t able to really get involved offensively, with only three shots and a single assist in 23 minutes on the court. Clark’s only make of the night was one three-pointer but managed to snag a solid five rebounds. 

However, the glaring stat from Clark’s official debut was in the turnover department. The guard played quickly but turned the ball over five times against EIU, the most on the team. It was a quiet night for Clark, but there are certainly much stronger performances in store from the freshman down the line. 

Matthew Mayer: C- 

Mayer showcased flashes of why he could be the Illini’s X-factor, but the night ended in disappointment for the Baylor transfer. 

Mayer finished the game shooting three for nine from the field, and he missed several buckets underneath. While an occasional three point threat at Baylor, the Illini cannot count on Mayer to make up for the loss of Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier. 

Mayer’s defensive performance was also a mixed bag. Mayer seemed to be caught flat-footed at times, giving up a couple baskets near the paint. However, Mayer performed well on the boards — grabbing four of them — and ran down the court well in transition. 

Ty Rodgers: B+

Rodgers looked comfortable and physically imposing in his collegiate debut, having found success with offensive rebounds and getting to the basket. Out of the freshman guards, Rodgers — along with Harris — seemed to be a cut above his freshman peers and more willing to be a key facet in the offense.

However, Rodgers seems to be limited to only slashing to the basket and his inability to hit his free throws could cost the Illini in the future. 

Rodgers recorded only a single point, and finished 1-6 from the free throw line. 

But while Rodgers failed to make a dent with scoring he seems to fit the new prototype guard that head coach Brad Underwood desires. 

Rodgers finished with eight rebounds — including a couple on the offensive end — and finished with a team high five-assists. If Rodgers can start finishing at the basket, the Illini may have found their answer to the Houston Cougars of the world. 

Jayden Epps: D+

While the Illini showcase height at the guard and wing position, Epps is on the smaller end — although that shouldn’t matter if he hits his shots. 

Epps, however, struggled to make his mark on the game and he seemed hesitant to challenge the defense and push the ball inside. Unlike Rodgers, it seems unlikely that Epps can make a mark with offensive rebounds, which would help the Illini overcome a stagnant half-court offense. 

While Epps has been hailed as a “bucket” in the off-season, it appears that it will take Epps a while to adjust to the speed of the collegiate game and feel confident to pull the trigger on the perimeter. 

Sencire Harris: B+

Harris registered a quiet nine points, but he looked like the most pure scorer compared to his freshman counterparts and did a good job manufacturing transition opportunities for the offense that struggled to score without tempo. Harris finished with shooting four for nine from the field and recorded three steals.

While Rodgers is more physically imposing, Harris wasn’t intimidated to test Eastern Illinois’ front court and explode to the hoop — although the Ohio native finished 0-3 on slam dunk attempts.

 

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