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Illinois Basketball: 3 Observations from Michigan



It was a bizarre Senior Night, followed by a thrilling basketball game. Illinois honored Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr. in the pregame, two players who had been on campus for less than a year. After the festivities, the fireworks really started to go, in a heart stopping 91-87 double overtime win for the Illini.

1. Rack Attack

It was clear that the Illini heard Brad Underwood’s calls for them to attack the basket during the week. After hoisting 29 threes against Ohio State’s squishy interior defense, the Illini took it right to Michigan’s much bigger frontcourt. Illinois shot just 18 threes in the game and made just five. The Illini were +12 in the paint and shot 34 free throws, 10 more than the Wolverines. Without starting guard Jayden Epps, the Illini could not run a complicated offense, so their best players put their heads down.

It was a welcome change for most after the Illini’s very well documented issues from deep. This team will need to make jump shots. Thankfully, Mayer, Shannon and RJ Melendez all had timely jumpers down the stretch. However, the DNA of this offense has to be around the basket. Illinois embraced that.

2. Next Man Up

As mentioned, Illinois was without their starting point guard. Jayden Epps was ruled out during the week after what seemed to be a scary incident in practice. Epps ended up being diagnosed with a concussion, and his status is uncertain. With Epps out, Illinois was really without a point guard on the roster. Underwood went with RJ Melendez, who had struggled through a massive midseason slump. However, in Epps absence, Melendez provided 12 points, 4 rebounds and no turnovers along with some really strong defense on the much quicker Dug McDaniel.

With Epps out it also meant a lot more point guard for Ty Rodgers, who also responded to the added load. Rodgers had a career-high 14 points and was an energizer as always on the boards. Rodgers was a team high +15 in a career high 33 minutes. With Epps’ status is in the air, Illinois will need those two to step up on both ends and play big minutes.

3. Juwan H0(-6)ward

There has certainly been a lot of noise between these two programs recently. Illini fans will relish another year of beating Michigan and leaving Wolverines legend and head coach winless against Illinois. Howard is now 0-6, and Wolverines star Center Hunter Dickinson isn’t far behind at 0-3. Dickinson certainly had his best night against the Illini with a monster 31 points, 16 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 46 minutes. Coleman Hawkins gave an absolute workman’s shift with a game high 49 minutes and forced Dickinson to work for everything. Maybe Hawkins hard work caused Dickinson to miss the game tying free throw down the stretch.

When it’s come to winning time between these two programs, it’s been Illinois doing the majority of the talking. Dickinson and Michigan provide a great villain, and with this loss Michigan’s slim tournament hopes became even slimmer. It also marks Illinois’ fourth 20 win season in a row. While with how Michigan is playing right now and the general chaos of the Big Ten this year a rematch next weekend could be in the cards, the Illini walked away with the pot again.

Illinois moves to 20-10 on the season, 11-8 in conference play. They sit in fourth place in a six way pileup of a tie for second place, which makes them technically fifth. With a win on Sunday at Purdue and help from either these Wolverines or Penn State the Illini can slither into a double-bye spot. No matter what happens it will likely have us on the edge of our seats.

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.