Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball’s 76-50 win over Nebraska

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Sidney Malone

Guard Sencire Harris guards off the opposing team on Jan. 7, during a match against Wisconsin. Despite being a terrific guard for the Illini Harris still needs to work on his shooting as seen during Tuesday’s game against Nebraska.

By Drew Friberg, James Kim, and Carson Gourdie

Two wins on the bounce in Big Ten play is a good sign for Underwood and Co. With every team in the league picking up at least one loss in the first five games of the season means that the title race is still wide open. Games like Tuesday are ones that are marked on the schedule at the start of the season, but Illinois came out of Omaha as 26-point victors against a stout defensive unit.

Underwood has many things to be happy about, whether it be Terrence Shannon Jr.’s 25 points, or one of his team’s lowest first half turnovers this season, it seems like pieces are beginning to fall into place. With another tough matchup against Michigan State up next, Illinois can be excited with it current form, with players continuing to perform at their best.

Players stepping up

Simply put, the Illini are scoring. They are scoring in ways that they haven’t this season, even against some of the buy teams they played to begin with. This is now the second game in a row that the Illini have had four different 10+ point scorers, with five managing to complete this feat on Tuesday.

No matter how you spin this, players scoring is always a good thing. And when Shannon can shine as he did and Illinois can still diversify their scoring, they will be tough to beat. If you take away Shannon’s 25, the Illini still win Tuesday’s match.

The saying we always come back to is that there are “no easy games in the Big Ten.” In men’s basketball this season, that statement is all the more true. However, if Illinois keep scoring like this, they will be tough to beat.

Coleman Hawkins: B+

On 12 points, Coleman was the Illini’s second highest scorer — for the second game in a row. Tallying up five assists as well, Hawkins is really living up to his facilitator role while finding a way to be dominant on the scoresheet as well.

Although he shot 1-5 from beyond the arc, he used his typically-sharp shooting to help him drive to the basket numerous times, most notably with his dunk in the first half. Although Terrence Shannon Jr. told him to stop pump-faking after the team’s last win over Wisconsin, the shot fake got his team points on Tuesday.

RJ Melendez: B+

Melendez had one of his best games of the season at Nebraska. The sophomore managed to combine offensive threat with defensive effort in his more limited role off the bench.

His season-high 10 points came on decently efficient shooting (4-9), while also pulling down three boards. Where his game faltered just a bit was his ball security, giving the ball away twice over the course of his 23 minutes on the court.

This is now the standard for RJ. We’ve seen what he can do, now I want him to replicate it.

Dain Dainja: B

Dainja was good on Tuesday, but if Underwood isn’t going to use him offensively, there’s going to be issues down the line. For someone dominating the glass like Dainja was, pulling down seven boards and grabbing three blocks, he deserved more attempts.

1-1 shooting for a big in the Big Ten is a little outrageous. I get that not every matchup is constructed in Dainja’s favor, but after some great play against Wisconsin last week, getting him the ball just once for a shot makes iit hard to judge him. He did everything in his power right, he didn’t get the chance to get an A.

However, his one shortcoming was his composure. If the game was any closer, his four fouls could have led to some issues.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: A+

There’s no other way to put it: Shannon had the magic touch against Nebraska. After a strong return to form in last week’s upset over No. 14 Wisconsin, the Chicago native continued to be unstoppable on Tuesday night. 

Shannon recorded his second double-double of the season against the Cornhuskers with 25 points and 11 rebounds to his name. His influence on the game extended to both ends of the court, with the senior guard also recording four assists and four steals each. Shannon looked extremely sharp and forced turnovers that led to big points in transition for the Illini. 

25 points is no easy feat, and Shannon’s were scored off of 10-17 shooting from the field. Similar to in the game against the Badgers, Shannon’s explosiveness to get to the rim was on full display against the Cornhuskers. 

However, unlike the last game, the senior guard finished tonight’s contest with an impressive zero turnovers. To state the obvious, Illinois plays significantly better when Shannon is ON. And against Nebraska, he continued to show why he is regarded as one of the most electric players in the country.

Ty Rodgers: A

One word: HUSTLE. Rodgers truly brought the energy off the bench tonight against Nebraska. The freshman guard was all over the place, diving for loose balls and hustling hard to make important defensive plays. Rodgers finished the game with four points and a remarkable seven rebounds in 16 minutes on the floor.

In the first half, Rodgers sprinted across the court and managed to block a Cornhusker three-point attempt. That was the level of effort the Illini enjoyed from the freshman all game long. He played with confidence and worked hard every play, translating to a fantastic performance. It’s safe to say that Rodgers left it all out on the court in Lincoln.

Matthew Mayer: C+

Mayer shot poorly tonight, finishing 2-10 on his field goal attempts — missing six three point attempts. Mayer did finish with 10 points, but four of them came from the charity stripe. Mayer has earned open looks and has a quick release, but consistency will always be an issue for him.

However, despite inefficient shooting, Mayer did an excellent job on defense. He forced three turnovers, and grabbed four rebounds, helping spark the Illini in transition. Mayer’s length is starting to make a difference, and he can be one of the most dangerous players in the conference if he can find an offensive rhythm. 

Jayden Epps: A

After battling several inefficient shooting nights, Epps has performed well in the team’s latest two victories. 

Epps finished tonight shooting 5-6, scoring 11 points. Epps did his damage inside the arc today and looked in control. With the veterans – Hawkins and Shannon – stepping it up lately, Epps has been able to take more efficient shots and the results have improved. His ability to play clean basketball and facilitate – two assists and only one turnover – provides Illinois’ offense a very high ceiling. 

Sencire Harris: B-

Harris finished with zero points. We’ve come to expect that from the defensive specialist, but earning that grand total shouldn’t come from six shot attempts. Harris is a wonderful defender, but his shooting acumen is very limited, badly missing on open three point attempts and his dunk attempt. 

However, Harris still finished with a +/- of plus-16 tonight. Harris’ ability to run the court in transition and force turnovers – he finished with three steals tonight – provides Underwood a consistent defensive threat

 

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