Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball’s 9-point win over Minnesota

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James Hoeck

Guard RJ Melendez executes a specialized handshake ending in a salute with assistant coach Tim Anderson before the start of last night’s game. Melendez played with confidence throughout last night’s game against Minnesota as significantly improving from his presence on the court earlier this season.

By James Kim, Carson Gourdie and Theo Gary

Despite coming into Monday night’s contest against the worst team in the Big Ten currently, there were still some nerves around Champaign. Illinois had lost three of its last four games, and although Minnesota was set to be a cakewalk victory, it ended up being fairly close and a rather ugly triumph. Regardless, the Illini got the job done and are back in the win column.

Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. was a significant absence against the Golden Gophers, having been ruled out for the second straight game due to a concussion. However, the Shannon-less Illini saw other scoring leaders emerge in a game that saw special performances from sophomore guard RJ Melendez, fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer, junior forward Coleman Hawkins and freshman guard Jayden Epps.

Revival of RJ
It’s difficult to overlook the night many of Illinois’ shooters had on Monday. Mayer continued to light it up with 22 points, Hawkins put up 16 points, and Epps scored 17 points on 4-6 shooting from beyond the arc. However, arguably the most encouraging aspect of the Illini’s win was getting to see Melendez’s confidence return in spades.

Having been given the starting guard spot once again in Shannon’s absence, Melendez was all over the court and played a big role in helping the team secure its 18th victory of the season. State Farm Center was loving it, chanting the sophomore’s name and boosting the team as they battled out a 78-69 win.

RJ Melendez: A
This was a comeback game for Melendez. The sophomore guard has been struggling to escape his scoring slump, but he repaid head coach Brad Underwood’s trust with a special double-double performance against the Golden Gophers. Melendez was confident on the court, and despite only hitting one of his four attempts from beyond the arc, the sophomore lit up the arena with explosive, highlight dunks.

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    In addition to his 10 points, Melendez made his presence felt on the other end of the court. Finishing with eight defensive rebounds and 11 total rebounds, he was one of the most energetic and alert players on the floor.

    Melendez’s encouraging display against Minnesota is hopefully a sign of things to come. The first double-double is always special, and the Illini will need this version of Melendez with the Wildcats up next on Thursday.

    Jaden Epps: A/A-

    Welcome back Mr. Epps.

    Jaden Epps, who has battled inefficiency from deep as of late, went off against Minnesota, making 4-6 attempts. In the prior eight games, Epps was 6-34 from deep. His ability to consistently nail three-pointers will be needed for a team that’s struggled most of the season.

    One statistic that did stand out: zero assists. While the team manufactured many points in transition, it would be nice to see a guard like Epps get others involved more directly.

    Matthew Mayer: A

    Mayer didn’t stick the landing from deep, but he sure made up for it inside. Mayer, who made only 2-7 of his threes, finished with 22 points. Mayer has continued to step up since Shannon’s absence. Compared to Shannon, Mayer is a more viable three-point shooter, and he can somewhat replicate his inside production.

    Coleman Hawkins: A

    “Coleman Hawkins needs to be more aggressive” is a well-worn line. And one that, after tonight, might need retiring because Hawkins was, in fact, aggressive. Three for eight from three, six for 12 from the field will do that.

    At the end of the first half, when Illinois’ offense went a bit stale and when it usually would have become the Terrence Shannon Jr. show, Hawkins stepped up. Illinois’ other NBA draft prospect stepped into those big scoring shoes, burying threes when it was open and posting up when it wasn’t.

    Dain Dainja: B+

    Minnesota just didn’t have the size. Or, well, they did, but nobody could match up with sophomore forward Dain Dainja anyway. Outside of two first-half fouls that kept him out for the last minutes of the half, Dainja was a menace on the inside scoring 12 on 50% from the floor.

    He shot about 50% from the line as well, which wasn’t as good. Minnesota kept putting him at the line because, once again, they couldn’t handle him.

    Luke Goode: A project

    Sophomore guard Luke Goode only registered 17 minutes, and he recorded zero points. While Goode is coming off of an injury, Underwood said the sophomore is not under a minute restriction. However, expecting Goode to become an immediate deep-ball and rebounding threat seems wishful.

    While Goode performed well against Indiana, his performance against Minnesota shows it may take a while for Goode to create his own shot often.

    Ty Rodgers: C
    Freshman forward Ty Rodgers was quiet in his appearance off the bench against Minnesota. In 17 minutes, the freshman recorded four rebounds and didn’t shoot the ball at all. While he plays a glue-guy role for the Illini, Rodgers was still fairly anonymous and nearly fouled out after picking up four fouls.

    Sencire Harris: N/A

    Twelve minutes of game time and very few memorable moments. Freshman guard Sencire Harris finished with one point, a block and two rebounds. Harris has been supplanted by Ty Rodgers as the freshman standout on defense.

     

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