Notes, player grades from Illinois’ win over Bethune-Cookman

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Sidney Malone

Guard Sencire Harris celebrates a score against Penn State on Dec. 10. Harris had a spectacular performance as a starter during Thursday’s game against Bethune-Cookman that ended with a 85-52 victory in favor of the Illini.

By Drew Friberg, James Kim, and Carson Gourdie

This late in the season, a match like this will help the players build up momentum ahead of the quickly approaching three month stretch of conference matches. However, what it does even more than help the players, is help Brad Underwood learn who he can rely on week in and week out.

With horrendous losses at the hands of Penn State and Mizzou within the past month, questions and concerns over the mentality within such a young lineup have come up — even being brought up by Underwood himself. If certain players can’t focus up against Bethune-Cookman, then why would they be rewarded gametime against the top teams in the Big Ten.

Luckily for Underwood, his players responded well after last Thursday’s loss to Mizzou, dominating the Bulldogs from the getgo. Some of his young players stepped up big time, most notably Sencire Harris, who had one of his best offensive showings of the season. Games like this will raise questions about which guards will start alongside Shannon during conference play.

RJ Melendez: C

RJ’s shooting is getting a little ridiculous. He has had big threes against the likes of UCLA and Texas, but shooting 1-8 against Bethune-Cookman isn’t going to retain his starting spot.

Going into the bulk of conference matches starting up next week, Underwood has decisions to make. A lot of times, it is going to come down to who he can rely on most. With players like Harris and Epps finding their feet in collegiate ball, I don’t see a reason he should be a starting guard.

His effort is easily noticeable, and his hustle is admirable. But when it comes to crunch time, I’m trusting the guys shooting better than 13% and grabbing more than three boards against Bethune-Cookman.

Coleman Hawkins: B+

Coleman is still one of the more frustrating players to watch in this lineup, purely because we have seen what he is capable of now. This match Coleman was great. His improved work on the glass was great to see moving forward for Illinois, and even landed himself a double-double on the night with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

But now that we know what he is capable of, I expect a little bit less turnovers from the guy who is gonna run the Illini’s offense. His shooting, excellent. His work on the glass, excellent. His distribution, great, but it needs to be on higher level to push this team back into the rankings.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: B-

It was a quieter night from Illinois’ best scorer, who finished with only 13 points against Bethune-Cookman (averaged 18.2 points heading into the game). Shannon’s sharp reactions and explosive speed were all on display, with the senior recording four steals.

Shannon shot 3-7 from the field, 2-4 from three and 5-6 from the free throw line. The guard also snagged three rebounds and recorded three assists. Overall, however, Shannon wasn’t as big of a presence on the court as he usually is. While the Illini didn’t need him to score big tonight, the Wildcats seemed like a prime opportunity for Shannon to rack up some big point totals.

That being said, it’s also notable that the blowout victory saw Shannon on the court for 26 minutes, which was less than normal. After playing 37 minutes last week against Missouri, the Bethune-Cookman game was a good chance to rest Shannon in preparation for Northwestern next week. 

Dain Dainja: A+

Dainja played out an excellent performance on Thursday, rewarding Underwood for putting him in the starting lineup. The redshirt sophomore was a force to be reckoned with all night long, particularly in the second half. Finishing the game with a career-high 22 points on impressive 8-10 shooting, Dainja’s array of dunks, layups and power in the paint only helped to boost Illinois’ overwhelming advantage throughout the evening. 

In addition to six rebounds and two assists, Dainja was also the Illini’s best defender. With four blocks and four steals, Dainja was unstoppable on both ends of the court. The only area of the forward’s game that raised some eyebrows was in the free throw shooting department. Dainja shot 6-11 and struggled especially early on, a trend that we’ve seen throughout the season. While there is work to be done, the Brooklyn Park native was too good everywhere else for this to be a serious issue. 

Illinois’ game flowed through Dainja on Thursday night. The big man’s performance proved to be a point of excitement for the Illini as the team prepares to return to Big Ten play next Wednesday.

Ty Rodgers: C+

Rodgers was given 18 minutes on the floor against the Wildcats and scored three points, collected two rebounds and recorded an assist in that time. The freshman didn’t add anything major to the Illini’s game and shot 1-3 from the field as well as 1-2 from the free throw line. 

Sincere Harris: A-

Does Harris need to become a regular starter? That’s what the Fox Sports 1 broadcast team asked near the end of the game. For a team that has received criticism for its effort after embarrassing losses to Penn State and Missouri, Harris counters those perceptions with his on-ball defense and beaming grin while on the court. 

And he played pretty well on offense tonight, too. And that dunk at the end of the game was the cherry on top. 

Harris finished with 12 points, making five out of seven field goal attempts, grabbed four rebounds and recorded three assists. Harris being placed in the starting lineup provides Illini followers hope that Underwood is holding his player’s accountable while rewarding success. 

Harris didn’t pick up four fouls and record three turnovers, which isn’t surprising given his high motor. But if Harris wants to keep Melendez and Epps from stealing his potential new role, he’s going to need to clean up his game. 

Even if Harris doesn’t remain in the starting lineup for good, hopefully he can earn starter minutes. For example, Alan Griffin didn’t start in 2019-2020 — despite fan desires — but he still provided Illinois nine points and energy off the bench. 

Jaden Epps: B+

While Harris stole the show — especially among the freshman — Epps provided another strong performance, furthering establishing that Epps is the rookie Underwood can count on most. Epps ran well in transition, got others involved and did a good job of scoring points despite a low-volume night. 

Epps was in a bit of funk prior to tonight’s tip-off, as his season field goal average had plummeted to just over 41%. But tonight, Epps finished with a robust 10 points, making four out of seven field attempts. If Epps can drive to the rim — and succeed — he needs to take shots as he has one of the roster’s highest ceilings as a scorer. 

Matthew Mayer: C

For the first time in four games, Mayer was a liability as a shooter. 

Mayer finished with seven points, but he only made two out of nine shots attempts — and was especially poor from the three-point line. It didn’t matter that Mayer had an off night against Bethune-Cookman, as Dainja and Harris stepped up big. But tonight further develops the claim that Mayer can be somewhat of a wild-card. 

But a poor shooting night doesn’t take away from Mayer’s improvement showcased throughout nonconference play. He showcased the ability to succeed in a role that eluded him at Baylor — his team being able to count on him to create offense. Prior to tonight’s game, Mayer’s point totals were 21, 14, 21 and 16, respectively. 

 But even in those games, Mayer was inconsistent. Against Texas, Mayer shot well in the first half before letting Epps and Shannon take over in the second half and overtime. Against Penn State, he didn’t score in the second half. Against Missouri, Mayer’s 2nd half blitz came a half late. 

 

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