CHAMPAIGN — Starting on Friday, the real tests begin.
The first three games of the Illinois men’s basketball season were never really about the final score, and No. 19 Illinois was never truly in danger of losing to Eastern Illinois, Kansas City or Monmouth. None of those three teams were ranked better than No. 276 in the country, according to KenPom.
The first three games were more a factor of head coach Brad Underwood, his coaching staff and his players seeing how the puzzle fit together. What are the edges? What’s the core of the puzzle? How quickly can it come together and how clear is the picture?
Most of those largely remain unanswered after three uncompetitive games that Illinois (3-0) won by an average of 35.3 points per game. But the three games were a needed tune-up for the Illini (3-0) before traveling to Las Vegas for the Continental Tire Main Event, starting with an 8:30 pm CT Friday game against No. 8 UCLA. Illinois will play either No. 5 Baylor or No. 16 Virginia on Sunday.
Illinois has a new-look roster that is comprised of a few important returnees (Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez, Luke Goode), impact transfers (Terrence Shannon Jr., Dain Dainja, Matthew Mayer) and a heralded freshman class (skyy clark, Jayden Epps, Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris). Underwood had to figure out how that all looked, and the freshmen particularly had to get used to the world of college basketball.
“It’s important for us to keep playing in the flow of the game and keep playing hard, then mostly playing defense,” Epps said on Monday. “That’s where the game is going to come to us at and that’s how we’re going to win, ultimately. We just playing defense, playing hard and playing together. Keep moving the ball on offense and let the game come to us. Don’t force anything and I feel like we’ll be good.”
Underwood hasn’t been afraid to lean on his freshmen during his tenure, and he’ll certainly lean on them again this year.
Epps (12.0 points on 43.8 percent shooting from three) is averaging 24 minutes per game, which is second-most on the team. Rodgers (3.0 points, 4.7 rebounds) is averaging the third-most minutes at 23.7, Clark (6.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists) is averaging 22.7 minutes, and Haris (7.0 points and 1.3 rebounds) is averaging 15.7 minutes.
Some of those numbers have been skewed by blowout wins and Underwood letting his freshmen play through mistakes with the game well in hand, but the reality is the freshmen are every bit a part of this rotation, especially with Goode out with a foot injury. The three low-major buy games were important in getting the freshmen’s feet under them and finding their spots on the floor.
“That’s just it, just finding a little comfort,” Underwood told Illini Inquirer. “It’s so different putting a uniform on and playing in front of fans. It’s so different when the other coach scouts and you’re still trying to get good at what you do. They’re going to learn really quick now that mistakes? You get out. You’re coming out. We let them play through some of these things in some of these games, but to be great people we’ve got to really minimize those mistakes. There’s a thing called game slippage. You can cover stuff in practice, you can cover it and you can get it right and all of a sudden the flow of the game gets going and veterans don’t make those mistakes a lot of times. We’re getting better at those. In these types of games, it’s something we’ve got to make sure we minimize.”
Each of the freshmen has had his moments to start the season in which they looked to gain a little comfort and confidence. Epps, after going 1 for 4 from the field in his debut, has scored 34 points in the last two games and has hit 7 of 14 3-pointers. That’s not exactly surprising given how he scored the ball in high school.
Clark looks poised as a point guard, very rarely rattled. In fact, twice on Monday, he suggested to Underwood that the Illini run a specific play, which was a welcomed suggestion coming from a freshman. He hit Dainja with back-to-back bounce passes for easy lay-ups against Monmouth and showed his ability to attack the basket or hit a 3-pointer.
Not bad considering Underwood admits he was still feeling out exactly how to use them as recently as a week ago.
“I didn’t know where to play them. That sounds cliche or maybe poor, I mean, I had to feel what they could do and where they were at. I’ve gained a ton of confidence in Skyy with the ball and their ability,” Underwood said. “…Thinking it and understanding it and that’s tremendous maturity. On the other side, we’ve taken Jayden off of it a little bit. Jayden hasn’t played as much on the ball in practice. I’m going to keep Jayden on the scout team or second group forever because he’s gotten going doing that. He’s getting reps. It’s not where he’s subbed out. He’s in all the time. His understanding is getting better. I’m excited about those two guys and Sencire (Harris) and Ty (Rodgers). I’ve said, this freshman group is mature.”
Rodgers continues to do a little bit of everything on the court and has shown to already be a good defender, at least in the first three games of his career. Harris came off the bench against Eastern Illinois and was a spark plug with his defensive intensity and fearlessness attacking the rim. He’s hit four 3-pointers in his last two games.
All of the takeaway from the first three games comes with the caveat that the competition is about to spike in Vegas. That’s hardly a secret for anyone watching. But those three games were big for the freshmen to feel college basketball.
Short of last season, which had a much more established roster, Underwood has shown a willingness to play freshmen.
Ayo Dosunmu averaged 31.1 minutes as a freshman and was a starter. Kofi Cockburn played 27.5 minutes per game when he was a freshman starter. Giorgi Bezhanishvili played 26.2 minutes as a freshman in 2018. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams played 26.3 and 16.9 minutes as a freshman, respectively, in 2017. Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo played 25.5 and 21.5 minutes as freshmen, respectively, in 2020.
This isn’t a new pivot for Underwood. He knew these freshmen would play. Now, it’s a matter of seeing them against top competition
“I’ve seen a lot of growth,” said Shannon. “The first couple games they probably had a turnover or just a freshman mistake. We’ve all been there before. What I do is I just tell them, ‘Next play.’ They’re all great players.”