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Illinois Basketball: 3 Observations from Minnesota



Feb 20, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Dain Dainja (42) and Matthew Mayer (24) pressure Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Ta'lon Cooper (55) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of two straight road losses, it was home sweet home for Illinois, as they came away with a 78-69 win. Despite missing leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. for the second game in a row with a concussion, the Illini never trailed in the second half.

1. Got Right

In the preview I mentioned that Minnesota gives up the highest percentage on three-point shots in the Big Ten. The streaky Illinois shooting ran hot tonight, going 10-26 from deep. It was a needed night from Jayden Epps, going 4-6 from three. It was Epps first multi-three game since the Ohio State game in January. RJ Melendez made a big three to put the game away late. Coleman Hawkins made three threes, and ironically it was Matthew Mayer who struggled from downtown, although he still made two.

It’s been beaten to death with this team, but truly the glaring flaw is the lack of consistent shooting. Mayer is usually good for a couple, but getting one of Melendez, Epps or Hawkins in rhythm from downtown would be a massive ceiling raiser for this team down the stretch. Illinois already owns the paint. If teams have to scramble on the perimeter, it will be even harder to stop the rim attack.

2. RJ Response

Indiana was a rough game for RJ Melendez. Inserted into the starting lineup for Shannon after a suspension and lack of consistent minutes Melendez struggled, going 0-6 from the field including some ugly missed layups. He also missed a good look to send the game into overtime after Matthew Mayer got doubled. If Melendez didn’t start against Minnesota for surging freshman Ty Rodgers not many would’ve batted an eye. Brad Underwood is many things, but if nothing else he believes in his players. Underwood was rewarded for his trust with one of the best games in RJ’s time in Champaign.

Melendez had his first career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Melendez clearly set out to crash the glass, with a putback dunk to start the game disallowed for a foul on the shot. That effort carried over to a solid offensive game. Only 1-4 from three, but two of the three misses were right on target, an improvement over some recent wayward efforts.

I thought Melendez looked a little too timid athletically against the Hoosiers, and he looked a lot more bouncy against the Gophers. He had carbon copy two hand back scratchers in each half off smooth baseline cuts. There’s a reason Melendez was pencilled in as a starter at the start of the season. He is a talented offensive player and plus athlete. Getting his confidence back would be a huge development even to just not have to rely so much on Shannon coming off his concussion.

3. More Matt

As the season began, there was questions on whether Illinois would see the version of Matthew Mayer that showed so many flashes as part of back to back one seeds at Baylor. Mayer looked a step slow, grounded and perhaps even a little bored. As he has gotten healthy and conference play has heated up, the Illini seem to be getting exactly what the vision for Mayer is. Obviously, it starts with the scoring, leading the team again with 22. Mayer is so skilled and presents a problem for just about every defender. He can take smaller guys to the post, and dance around bigger guys on the perimeter. He had another big dunk today, again going up with the ‘Statue of Liberty’ driving to the basket. I also continue to be impressed with his Pick and Roll chemistry with Dain Dainja.

It’s coming to be the time of the year Mayer came to Illinois for. The Illini need him to continue to create for himself and others, especially until Shannon comes back. Mayer has seen everything there is to see in college basketball, and his experience will be invaluable as Illinois comes down the home stretch.

With the win the Illini go to 18-9, 9-7 in conference play. They will welcome surprise second-place Northwestern to Champaign next. The Illini have avoided any Quad Three or Four losses. Now they have some opportunities to improve their seed against good opponents.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.