Notes, player grades from Illinois’ 29-point victory over Syracuse


Sydney Laput

Sophomore guard RJ Melendez looks for someone to pass to during the second half against Syracuse on Tuesday.

By Drew Friberg, James Kim and Carson Gourdie

Shot selection

12-37 in the first half. 24-67 in the whole game. Illinois’ shot draining ability has been great all season, but I think that went to their head a bit tonight.

Against the zone defense of the Orange, the Illini found so many opportunities to shoot — which is a huge positive. But if the ball isn’t going in, maybe they need to search for more surefire ways of scoring.

When some of your most active shooters, Skyy Clark and Terrence Shannon Jr. especially, are going a combined 5-25 from the field, things may need to change. Clark in particular shot 0-10, and while he took mainly open shots, sometimes finding the guy who is hot is a better play than trying to get out of a slump.

RJ Melendez: B+

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He started out the half with big stops and forced turnovers, but was pulled after grabbing two fouls in the first four minutes. Good half, only four minutes played though.

In the second half, Melendez had one of his most mature halves of basketball this season. 15 points, six rebounds and two steals all helped thwart any Orange momentum while also seeing out the match.

Even without the 15 points, RJ still played a great match. The main problem I had was with his first 20 minutes, where he basically fouled himself out of the first half. The Illini’s intensity dropped tenfold after RJ had to be taken off. Against better opposition, he needs to maintain composure and learn from tonight. He could have had a double-double

Dain Dainja: C

Dainja played just nine minutes on Tuesday, making it his lowest minutes played of the season. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, as the zone system Syracuse employed wasn’t a good matchup for him.

However, In just nine minutes Dainja fouled three times, shot 1-4 inside and turned the ball over once. He lost his duel against Edwards pretty often, as he was outrebounded 10-1 in the first half.

I need more from Dain in his time on the court, however. Even if the matchup wasn’t in his favor, he could have still done the fundamentals a bit better.

Coleman Hawkins: A+

Coleman’s game was nothing short of fantastic. He played a mature first half while the rest of the Illini frustratingly missed shots. Coleman went a quietly good 6 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in the first half, and then exploded in the second half, achieving a triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

After his career-high first match of the season, Coleman has been unable to replicate his performance against better opposition. Playing the majority of the match just inside the paint, trying to find gaps in the Orange’s zone defense, the junior made his presence felt everywhere. His basketball IQ that Underwood always raves about shone through on Tuesday, and the scoreboard reflected that.

If Coleman can continue to step up in games where the Illini are struggling, this team’s ceiling skyrockets.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: B
Scoring Shannon’s performance against Syracuse was pretty difficult. On the one hand, the senior’s shooting was quite poor on Tuesday, going 5-17 from the field and 5-15 from three. Shannon suffered miss after miss, air balls included. That being said, he still finished the night as the Illini’s top scorer with 17 points. That’s right, even in what was a subpar performance by Shannon’s standards, he managed to put up 17 points.

Shannon’s scoring consisted of five threes and two free throw makes. We didn’t see the Chicago native get to the line nearly as much as he’s shown he’s capable of, but Shannon impacted the game in other ways, too. The Illini were +25 with Shannon on the floor and in addition to seven rebounds and two assists, the senior’s presence was felt defensively and he recorded two blocks against the Orange.

Overall, it was just a strange night for Shannon. We’ve seen much better shooting nights from him, but if anything, Shannon’s 17 points serves as a testament to how good the Chicago native is.

Skyy Clark: D+
Plain and simple, the shots did not fall for Clark against Syracuse like they did against Lindenwood. The freshman guard finished the game with two points, both coming from the free throw line.

Clark went 0-10 from the field and 2-4 from the free throw line. On the plus side, he brought down five defensive rebounds and dished out three assists. Clark also had two steals so while the freshman had an uncharacteristic shooting night, he still helped the Illini in other ways. Clark was just off on Tuesday night and we’ll see if he manages to get back in his groove against Maryland.

Ty Rodgers: B
Rodgers enjoyed 15 minutes on the floor against Syracuse and was solid during his time out there. The freshman guard was smart in possession, made the right passes and kept the Illini in rhythm during his smaller role against the Orange.
Rodgers finished the night with four points on 2-4 shooting and recorded two assists and a single rebound.

Jayden Epps: A

Epps continues to show Brad Underwood that he can count on his freshman guard to make big shots. The Illini continue to struggle shooting from the three-point line, making only 28% of their attempts tonight. However, Epps performed well, making three of out six three-point shots.

Epps hasn’t shown that he can be a facilitator for Illinois — a usual trait of a guard. But maybe the Illini don’t need Epps in that role? With Clark and Coleman willing to dish it out, the Illini are benefitting from a player like Epps who’s willing to shoot.

11 points on seven shots, Epps will continue to play a significant amount of minutes if he can remain efficient.

Matthew Mayer: B

Mayer has been a disappointment in the scoring department this season.

After averaging 9.8 points last season at Baylor, the transfer is currently sitting at 6 points per game on 32% shooting — not great. Tonight, Mayer finished with only five points and didn’t make a single three-point shot.

But Mayer has started to make his mark in the rebounding department, finishing with eight boards. Mayer’s ability to be a force and end opposing offensive possessions is exactly what Underwood desired when he recruited him.

An athletic wing, he fits the mold of the Houston Cougars players who dominated the Illini on the boards last March Madness — a facet of Illinois’ game that Underwood knew he needed to improve.

For Mayer, the shots may never fall in consistently. But when he records a +/- of plus-17, Mayer is an asset on the court whether or not the ball is going in the hoop.

Sencire Harris: N/A

Four minutes, one shot and a potential injury. Best of luck to Harris in taking care of himself before Big Ten play kicks off.


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