Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball’s 75-66 win over Michigan State

Illinois+Fighting+Illini+basketball+takes+on+the+Michigan+State+Spartans+at+State+Farm+Center+on+January+13%2C+2023.

Sidney Malone

Illinois Fighting Illini basketball takes on the Michigan State Spartans at State Farm Center on January 13, 2023.

By Drew Friberg, James Kim, and Carson Gourdie

The Illini are hot right now, and there’s no denying it. Coming off a huge win over No. 14 Wisconsin and a dominant road victory against Nebraska, Illinois’ nine-point win over an in-form Michigan State team has shown that it is ready to reenter the top-25 conversation. Led by big performances from Dain Dainja, Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr., the Illini fought hard on both ends of the court to claim their third-straight Big Ten triumph of 2022-23.

Continued defensive tenacity

Illinois has recovered its defensive form in recent games. Its sharp defending was crucial in the Wisconsin upset and it led to the 26-point margin in the road win over Nebraska. The Illini’s win on Friday night can be chalked up to a variety of different factors. However, in what was a tight back-and-forth matchup, the deciding factor that tipped the scales in favor of the Illini was how the team defended.

While there were stretches where the Spartans began to run away on the scoreboard, the Illini delivered big stops when they were needed, particularly late in the game. Mayer was a significant contributor on the other end of the floor and recorded a remarkable six blocks to prevent Michigan State from scoring seemingly assured buckets in the paint. The defensive fire that Illinois has rediscovered as of late is leading to impressive results, and it led to the program’s statement victory over one of the better teams in the Big Ten on Friday night.

Coleman Hawkins: C+

I thought Hawkins’ game was good, specifically in the second half. But, his overall presence in the first half was that of an inexperienced player — he turned the ball over two times to initially give the Spartans their lead.

Although he redeemed himself later, being active on the boards and quietly scoring a few points, he certainly had his flaws. My expectations for Coleman at this point in the year admittedly puts his score a bit lower. But these are the games he should be able to rack up assists, dropping it to Dainja or hitting Shannon for a three (in the first half).

RJ Melendez: C+

RJ’s match was effective, I thought he did a lot well. In the first half, he allowed his team to get out to an early lead through a lot of forced turnovers and hard work. He drew a couple charges that turned the tide of the scoring, and generally was a good presence on the floor.

He didn’t score much, or put up great stats frankly. However, his effectiveness in this team can’t be understated. He is a great presence off the bench.

Dain Dainja: A+

Illinois fans have waited over a month for this day. Dain Dainja was electric in the second half, and forcefully led his team to victory.

He won his 1-on-1s and he did everything well. 20 points and seven rebounds marks his best performance in conference so far, which is an increasingly promising sign for Illinois fans. In preseason when Underwood had talked about his dominance in the paint, this is what most fans had envisioned.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: B+

Oh what could’ve been. Shannon was absolutely lighting it up early in the first half and was single handedly taking on the Spartans during the opening 10 minutes. The Chicago native had 15 of the Illini’s 19 points at the 10:51 mark on aggressive 5-7 shooting from the field, but went radio silent from that point forward. During the remainder of the game, Shannon wasn’t able to score another field goal and only added two free throws to his tally in the final seconds.

17 points against Michigan State is no easy feat, but it really looked and felt like Shannon was going to turn in a 30+ point performance after his fiery start to the game. After those first 10 minutes, Shannon cooled off dramatically and didn’t have any real impact in the second half. By the end of regulation, the senior finished 5-13 from the field (6-6 free throw shooting) and also recorded five rebounds and a single assist. 

Ty Rodgers: N/A

Rodgers only saw eight minutes on the court and was only able to contribute a single rebound in his very limited appearance.

Matthew Mayer: A

A past criticism of Mayer was that his scoring seemed to come in garbage time and that it disappeared when Illinois needed him most. 

Not today. 

Mayer had an explosive second half, nailing a couple crucial threes, and was the face of Illinois’ comeback victory over the Michigan State Spartans. 

Mayer finished the night with 19 points on 7-12 shooting, and he utilized his strength down low and accuracy from the three-point line. He looked confident, pulled the trigger quickly and was the most dangerous player on the court in the 2nd half. Add in six blocks and three rebounds, and Mayer is a well-deserving player of the game. 

Sencire Harris: N/A

This wasn’t one of Harris’ finest performances, and his stat sheet looks extremely bleak. No steals, no rebounds, no nothing — aside from a single missed shot attempt. 

Harris only played 11 minutes, and when pulled in the first half, he earned a scolding look from Underwood. But while Harris didn’t make a difference today, he didn’t cost Illinois either. 

Jaden Epps: C+ (improved from an initial projection of an F or D)

It truly was a tale of two halves for the Virginia native. 

Epps had an awful first half, forcing up — and missing — several shot attempts near the rim. When the team needed a bucket in the first half, Epps was not efficient or steady enough to step up. 

However, Epps improved in the second half. He finished with seven points, five assists, a season high, and zero turnovers. With Clark being out of the picture, Epps is a more than worthy replacement as Illinois’ primary facilitator.

 

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