Player grades, notes for Illinois men’s basketball’s win over Alabama A&M


Sidney Malone

Guard Skyy Clark attempts to block Penn State from making it to the hoop during a match off on Dec. 10. Clark played a good game against Alabama A&M on Saturday but suffered from fouls during the match.

By Drew Friberg, Carson Gourdie and James Kim

Illinois’ 68-47 win over Alabama A&M should have been a given, but for a while there, the Illini looked like the buy team, not the Bulldogs.

Brad Underwood’s issues with the lack of leadership in the locker room looks to be continuing for another day, as many of the team’s leaders struggled to make things happen in big moments — except for Matthew Mayer. The fifth-year forward dropped 21 points, and was extremely present on the defensive glass and at the rim as well. If not for his defensive stops, Illinois likely would have trailed with 10 minutes to play.

While Underwood would have loved a walk in the park after last Saturday’s brutal loss to Penn State, he got anything but that. He was seen several times screaming at Coleman Hawkins after bad plays. This game, he learned a lot about his team.

Leading by example:

No player looks to be willing to take the reins from Underwood when the going gets tough. Illinois started the second half on the wrong side of a 16-2 scoring run, which put A&M within just a point of the Illini. During this time, it was missed shot after missed shot. However, for the majority of the shots taken during this time, it was the freshmen.

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Sencire Harris took three shots in quick succession during this drought, which all missed wildly. Jayden Epps even took some shots, with none falling for him. However, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins were two of the players taking the least amount of shots during this time. While the freshmen were trying desperately to hit a big shot and get their team going, some of the upperclassmen couldn’t help out.

Shannon and Matthew Mayer bailed the team out at No. 8 UCLA and at No. 2 Texas. But, if they aren’t hitting big shots, how are they going to motivate their team during a cold stretch?

Coleman Hawkins: C-

I feel like I give Coleman a C- every week. But today, he truly didn’t earn much higher. As mentioned before, the ten minute drought Illinois endured was dreadful, with nobody really trying to step up besides the freshmen. I expect a bit more from Coleman, who has played with Ayo and Trent, seeing what makes great leaders great. If he can’t motivate his team during pivotal moments, who can?

His stats were strictly fine. He eventually hit the three to give Illinois another double digit lead, but he had just seven points until garbage time. I expect a bit more from someone of his caliber against worse opponents in A&M.

Dain Dainja: D+

Dain saw just 12 minutes of action on Saturday — and they weren’t pretty. Dropping four points and two rebounds as a big man is dreadful output, but his failure to effect the game when put up against other good bigs is worrisome for Underwood’s unit.

In other matches, like games against Virginia and UCLA most notably, Dainja has struggled to get into the rhythm of matches. This was the same tonight. But, when he is put up against a formidable opponent, he hasn’t exactly imposed himself the same way he was able to earlier in the season, where he would quietly put up 14+ points with minimal turnovers.

I hope this is just a slump for him, as he is extremely fun to watch, but his recent performances have been lackluster.

RJ Melendez: C

This is the first match RJ hasn’t started all season, so I was intrigued how that may affect his play. After a lackluster start to his campaign as a starter, RJ’s swap for Jayden has been talked about online for a while. But, as it turns out, this swap only occurred because he was hurt.

Despite playing 15 minutes total, Melendez was hurt for all of them. After coming down with a rebound in the first half, he tweaked his shoulder badly, and had to come off. He ended the game with zero points and three rebounds. I don’t know how to judge his performance knowing that Underwood played him while unhealthy.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: B+

After Underwood’s harsh criticism of Shannon’s leadership against Penn State, many felt as though it was over the line to publicly call out a player in that fashion. However, Shannon clearly took it all on the chin and turned in a much improved performance against Alabama A&M. 

Shannon finished the game with 18 points on 5-12 shooting. We saw the senior guard’s signature ability to draw fouls back in full flow on Saturday, with Shannon shooting 7-10 from the line. The Chicago native also recorded two rebounds and two assists.

Shannon was aggressive on both ends of the floor and brought the effort that was missing last week. In addition to being locked in defensively, Shannon showed no fear offensively and constantly drove to the rim where the majority of his points were scored. However, his shooting from distance was still well below par to what we know he’s capable of. 

Shannon’s performance against the Bulldogs was a step in the right direction, yet there is still plenty of room for improvement heading into next week.

Skyy Clark: B-

Clark enjoyed a strong start to the game against the Bulldogs, but any momentum was slowed due to foul trouble. The freshman guard quickly picked up four fouls and remained on the bench for significant stretches to avoid fouling out. Clark did end up fouling out with 3:38 remaining.

Despite his foul troubles, Clark scored eight points on 3-7 shooting. The Los Angeles native was less than stellar from three and didn’t shoot great from the free throw line.

Clark also finished the game without a single assist, a glaring stat given his job as the Illini’s starting point guard. Illinois needs improved composure from Clark heading into next week’s matchup against Missouri.

Ty Rodgers: B

Rodgers showed great hustle during his 21 minutes on the court. The freshman guard was aggressive and fought for loose balls, showing the grit Underwood was calling for from his players. 

Rodgers also snagged five rebounds against the Bulldogs and recorded one assist. The major part of his game that could use some improvement, however, is in the scoring department. To put it simply, Rodgers didn’t shoot the ball. He missed his only attempt from the field and shot 1-2 from the free throw line. While the freshman guard played his role well on Saturday, Rodgers’ ability and confidence needs to start extending to his finishing from close range.

Matthew Mayer: A

Mayer, for the third straight game, put up very productive numbers in the scoring department. The senior finished with a team-high 21 points and showcased some strength and confidence while attacking the rim. 

However, while 21 points looks sparkling, many of them came in garbage time. Granted, Shannon or Hawkins should probably be expected to carry the scoring load when the Illini need a basket, Mayer was very quiet while Alabama A&M took advantage of a huge Illini scoring drought. 

But the effort provided by Mayer was good. He looked fast and strong in transition, and he made several big plays on defense that led to easy scoring chances for the Orange and Blue. Concerns of effort at the beginning of season — which led to him being benched — isn’t a dead issue. 

Sencire Harris: C+ 

Offensively, Harris has a long way to go before Underwood can trust him as a scorer. Harris is not efficient from the perimeter. While Harris is fast, he’s not quite physical enough to be able to finish at the rim. Finishing 0-6 from the field, Harris had his shots blocked on multiple occasions. 

But Harris’ role as a freshman isn’t to be a scorer. That’s Epps’ responsibility — and hopefully Clark’s very soon. 

Harris provided energy and athleticism off the bench and did a great job of helping the Illini in the rebounding category, finishing with eight. On ball defense continues to be a strength for Harris — a steal and block recorded — and he will be an exciting presence to watch this season as he continues to grow. 

Jayden Epps: D+

Some games, Epps looks like he is one of the top shooting guards in the conference. On other days, not so much. 

Epps finished today with a statline that’s typical for a freshman — five points on six shots, four rebounds and an assist. But with the Illini not being able to count on Hawkins to be a scorer or for Shannon to stick to attacking the rim, Underwood needs more offensive production from Epps. 

Epps and Clark continue to trade roles of who looks like the more promising — and most needed — freshman on the roster. Today, when Epps is cold shooting and fails to facilitate offensive production, it makes you think that Illinois is a bad shooting day away from another short stay in March Madness. 


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