Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball’s win over Kansas City

Freshman+guard+Skyy+Clark+dribbles+the+ball+down+the+court+during+the+second+half+against+Kansas+City+on+Friday.+

Sydney Laput

Freshman guard Skyy Clark dribbles the ball down the court during the second half against Kansas City on Friday.

By Drew Friberg, Carson Gourdie, and James Kim

Illinois’ trouncing of Kansas City came with many surprises in the team’s second game of the season. In almost a completely opposite affair from Monday night, problems didn’t arise in scoring inside, but rather beyond the arc.

A couple breakout appearances from new Illini helped lead the way to a victory Friday night, which is both scary and reassuring for a team this new. Not being able to rely on vets for a consistent scoring presence, almost willing the team forwards by example, is not an admirable position to be in if you’re Brad Underwood. That being said, a breakout match from Epps of all people is a reassuring sight for fans, as the new team gets acclimated to college and Big Ten ball.

Shooting is an issue

1-16. Through 10 minutes, this was Illinois’ shooting from the field. Good for an early deficit to the Roos, this shooting run created the ugliest 15 minutes of basketball seen at Illinois in the past few years.

Although Coleman Hawkins’ three wasn’t going in tonight, not all of this was on him. Underwood was beyond frustrated with shot choices early on Friday night. It was frustrating to watch from the stands as well.

With no clear shooter on this team, it was actually Jayden Epps who stepped up with back to back threes to put the Illini back on track. Facing a bit more adversity than a less than average Kansas City team, it is still questionable where Illinois’ output from beyond the arc will come from.

Dain Dainja: A+

Absolutely needs to start every game for Illinois. His presence in the paint is not replicated by anyone else on the team. He is a monster.

Dainja achieved a double-double Monday night in just 16 minutes on the court, but Friday night he achieved it just six minutes into the second half. His presence both on the boards and in the paint created opportunities for second half points as well as allowed for his guards to hit open shots. 

Dropping 20 points and 15 rebounds as a big playing for Illinois? Those are Kofi numbers.

Underwood has his hands full figuring out what to do with his big unit. If Dainja can put up consistent double-doubles, while Hawkins thrives in other areas, and Mayer acclimates to his orange and white, Kofi Cockburn’s absence will make nearly no difference come the conference season.

Coleman Hawkins: B-

Very underwhelming game early on when it mattered from Hawkins. Sitting at 0-3 from beyond the arc and 0-4 shooting overall with just two rebounds after the first half is not sustainable from a big that takes minutes away from someone like Dainja.

While he managed to turn his match around quickly into the second half, it is worrying that there was such a significant dropoff from night one to night two. Scoring 23 on Monday, and just managing 6 points on Friday should worry Illini fans. If Hawkins can’t maintain a certain level of excellence against teams like Kansas City and Eastern Illinois, Big Ten play will be frustrating to watch.

RJ Melendez: B-

A strictly fine performance from someone coming off the bench, but as a starting guard, you need a bit more. Managing eight points in 21 minutes, with three coming from the line, Melendez’s first two performances left a lot to be desired. 

The thing on his side, though, is his workrate. He seems to be doing a lot of stuff not on the statsheet, constantly picking up open men on defense and moving the ball quickly. He worked hard in his first two starts, but with players like Harris, Epps and Rodgers on the bench waiting their turn, Melendez’s next performances need to be a lot more impactful to keep his starting spot.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: B-

Shannon’s performance against the Roos was underwhelming after coming off a 24 point performance against the Panthers, but it wasn’t atrocious. The senior finished with 14 points, got to the line a total of seven times, but still had a pretty poor shooting night overall, going 4-12 from the field. While Shannon’s accuracy has room for improvement, he still managed to record five assists and four rebounds. The guard kept up the energy on offense and sparked the arena with a couple of signature slams in the paint.

Skyy Clark: B+

Clark was much more involved against the Roos than in the season opener, and finished with 10 points. What was hurting the freshman guard most the last time out was turnovers, and against Kansas City, Clark shined, playing with pace and avoiding even a single turnover. Clark shot 2-3 from the field, was perfect from the free throw line and also managed to record two assists and five rebounds. It was an all-around solid performance from the freshman. 

Matthew Mayer: B

The Baylor transfer played more efficiently compared to last game, but the sample size was simply too small to dish out an A. 

However, Mayer played well on the defensive end, registering a block and a steal that jump-started the offense in transition — although picking up three fouls in 12 minutes isn’t desired. 

Offensively, Mayer began to find a rhythm late in the 2nd half, draining a catch-and-shoot three point shot and another layup that was created by his defensive steal. Mayer’s energy looked much improved against Kansas City, and the biggest concern for Underwood is whether he can manage the minutes wisely and get Mayer’s back healthy for Big Ten play. 

Ty Rodgers: D

Last game, I was thrilled with Rodgers ability to make smart passes and showcase strength near the hoop — despite the fact that he finished 1-6 from the free throw line. 

Against Kansas City, Rodgers’ confidence and intensity seemed to take a small step back, and the freshman made some questionable shots near the basket that were far off. 

On the defensive end, Rodgers seemed to be caught flat-footed at times, giving up a couple baskets near the rim. After believing that Rodgers could overtake Clark or Epps for significant minutes at a guard position, Rodgers needs to develop a jump shot or be more aggressive near the basket. 

Stat-line: 4 points, an assist and a rebound. The Illini need more from him if he wants to breakthrough and earn starter minutes in Big Ten play.

Jayden Epps: A

Epps, you proved me wrong. 

After being hailed as a “bucket” this offseason, Epps had a breakthrough game, finishing with 13 points and two three-pointers made. Additionally, a 35 +/- on the night. 

Epps wasn’t incredibly efficient, finishing under 50% in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage. However, after Epps failed to take charge against Eastern Illinois, it was refreshing to see Epps take open shots and create opportunities inside. 

Epps also had a good game facilitating the basketball, and successfully fed Dain Dainja on a few occasions down low. 

While Clark has the 5-star rating, Harris has the motor and Rodgers has the size, Epps has set the tone with maturity. 

Epps ability to make an outside shot — something the Illini desperately need — and play clean, level-headed basketball — unlike Harris tonight — should make him the front-runner to secure the point guard position in big games. 

Sencire Harris: C

Harris’ ability to nail a couple three-pointers late in the 2nd half helped him bump up his grade a few notches. However, Harris struggled with consistency throughout the game and made some bad decisions that earned him a yelling from Underwood. 

Harris finished with six points, but the freshman also coughed up three turnovers and missed another slam dunk. While Harris clearly has the heart and intensity Underwood desires, the guard needs to slow down his game and continue to work on his jump shot. 

 

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