Back in July we highlighted the Illini’s wing depth as a reason for optimism heading into the season. Let’s take a closer look at who makes up the wing unit.
RJ Melendez (6-foot-7, 205 pounds)
RJ didn’t see too much of the floor to begin his freshman season, but whenever Brad called his number he showed sparks of his huge potential. Down the stretch of the season he showed an ability to contribute to the team in different ways with his athleticism on both ends of the court.
RJ figures to play major minutes this season and he should provide the Illini with an athletic finisher at the rim and a potent rebounder crashing the glass from the wings. If he can show that he has added a consistent three-point shot to his game, not only will that help the Illini, but also justify the pre-season hype shown toward him in some of the NBA mock drafts.
Luke Goode (6-foot-7, 210 pounds)
Luke came in with RJ as part of last year’s recruiting class and saw the floor a bit more in his designated role as a perimeter shooter off the bench. He did manage to provide the spark in a couple of games and ended his freshman year shooting ~37% from 3.
Granted, Goode’s numbers last year were on a relatively low shot volume, so it’ll be something to watch out for to see if he can maintain the same percentages while being more involved within the offense.
With Alfonso Plummer’s graduation we lost our “streakiest” three-point shooter, but I think Goode has the game to step into those shoes.
Illini commit, Luke Goode, had 41 points and 10 3's on his senior night pic.twitter.com/FFKKwq6v4s— Armchair Illinois (@ArmchairIllini) January 23, 2021
His ideal role for this season is to provide the spark off the bench with a couple of quick threes to kickstart runs for the Illini. If he can do that while continuing to work on other aspects of his game, he figures to be a cornerstone vet for upcoming seasons (a la Da’Monte Williams).
Matthew Mayer (6-foot-9, 225 pounds)
Mayer was a huge signing for Underwood via the transfer portal, as he was being courted by other prominent programs like UNC, Alabama, Michigan, among others. Mayer has shown Illini fans what exactly he can do on the floor while starring for the Baylor Bears the last four years, including in the H2H matchup in late 2020 and in the Bears’ title run.
If you’re thinking “how do I know that name?”, remember the Baylor game in Indy in December of 2020? The game where the score went from 58-51 to 70-54 in a flash? The tall guy on your TV you were yelling at, screaming “how are we letting THIS GUY beat us?” That was Matthew Mayer: pic.twitter.com/jgtWHtG9uI— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) May 28, 2022
Mayer’s size and perimeter skillset gives Underwood a versatile weapon to deploy in various lineups. He can feature as a small ball center if we want to maximize shooting on the floor. He can also slide in at the 3 next to Coleman Hawkins and fellow Baylor transfer Daini Dainja if we want to matchup with some bigger teams while keeping shooting. Mayer will also be relied upon to provide a veteran presence as someone who’s had a deep tourney run on a team that doesn’t have too much postseason experience.
Ty Rodgers (6-foot-6, 200 pounds)
Last but not least, rounding out the wings is heralded freshman Ty Rodgers. Like we mentioned back in the preview, Rodgers joins the Illini after helping the USA U18 team win gold at the FIBA championships. (The last Illini to do that was Ayo Dosunmu!)
I think Rodgers will be used in spurts like we saw Underwood use RJ and Goode last year and will ease him into action. Rodgers can probably gain more playing time by utilizing his athleticism and playing solid defense and rebounding. Seems he’s already caught Underwood’s eye in practice:
#illini Brad Underwood said Ty Rodgers is as elite defensively for a freshman as he's seen.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) September 26, 2022
This unit’s success will determine how far we go this season as we move away from a big-man centric offense after Kofi Cockburn’s departure. In addition, if RJ and Goode show big improvements in their game it will add further credibility our player development program and boost recruiting even further.