CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Big Ten-ACC Challenge is seeing a long journey draw to a close.
Starting its challenge in 1999, the yearly competition between two marquee conferences comes to an end this fall. In an event that Illinois had little impact on for years, the program enters the Big Ten-ACC Challenge’s final year as one of the more elite teams in the mix.
On Tuesday night, the Illini can improve on an impressive 5-1 start to the season, and what better way to do so than against one of the most storied programs in college basketball: the Syracuse Orange.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Guys like RJ Melendez and Skyy Clark were expected to be big sources of leadership in the Illinois starting lineup this year, but five games into the season, neither looked quite up to speed yet.
However, both guys stepped up big last Friday against Lindenwood.
After having more turnovers (13) in his first five games than assists (11), Clark led the way with a career-high 19 points on a very efficient 8-of-9 from the field. He added four assists to his stat line as well.
Head coach Brad Underwood is really encouraged by the improvements exhibited from his star guard in such a short time.
“He’s making great decisions,” Underwood said. “He is being aggressive without being selfish or overly assertive. He’s found the right mix.”
Clark’s struggles early on reflected his inexperience at the college level, but Melendez was also going through a very similar stretch.
In his few opportunities to get significant playing time last season as a freshman, Melendez managed to reach double-digit points twice. However, in five games as a starter this season, he had yet to reach 10 points in a game.
Before the game against Lindenwood, Underwood challenged Melendez to show more effort and grit on both ends of the floor. Melendez responded “like a true champion” on Friday, recording a career-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
Both guys will be players to watch in Tuesday’s game, but they aren’t the only ones. Matthew Mayer and Coleman Hawkins add even more to this dynamic team, and Underwood is confident in the growth he sees from each guy.
Mayer has received plenty of skepticism from Illini fans because of his 32.5% shooting from the floor, but Underwood assures them it won’t last long.
“It’s not easy to be in a system for four years and shift gears all of a sudden,” Underwood said. “His role on our team is still growing and still forming.”
Hawkins is a big leader on this Illinois team, a role which he didn’t have last season.
“Now, he’s a different person. He’s a more mature player,” Underwood said. “He sees the game at a different level than most.”
These four budding superstars pose a big threat to the visiting Orange, but what should we expect from Jim Boeheim’s team?
Syracuse travels to Champaign after a rather underwhelming start to the season. Surprising losses to Colgate, St. John’s (in OT) and Bryant have the Orange sitting at 3-3.
I know what you’re thinking. The Illini have nothing to worry about, right? Wrong.
Regardless of record, this Syracuse team has weapons that make this game have ‘upset’ written all over it.
A common factor among most upsets happens to be good three-point shooting, and Syracuse has a guy that fills up the stat sheet in that category.
Joseph Girard III is a senior guard, and man, can he shoot. Reaching the impressive 40% mark from three-point range last season, Girard set out to top his career-best this season. From the first four games, it looked like he was going to do just that, averaging 21.3 points per game on 44.7% shooting from beyond the arc.
Even though he shot an abysmal 2-of-22 in his next two games, Underwood and Hawkins know how dangerous Girard is.
“He’s a guy who knows how to score,” Underwood said. “He’s a handful when he gets going.”
“He’ll shoot it from everywhere,” Hawkins added.
In recent-game stretches when Girard’s shot hasn’t fallen, an unexpected source has stepped up: freshman guard Justin Taylor. In the narrow loss to Bryant, Taylor scored a career-high 25 points, nine of those coming from three-point land.
“He’s a guy that can really shoot it,” Underwood said. “If he gets a clean look, he’s going to make it.”
Not only do each of these guys create massive problems for any defense, but their offensive prowess is complemented by the ‘Bully Ball’ of center Jesse Edwards. Edwards averages 14.5 points per game and he pulled down 21 rebounds (yes, 21) against Bryant. His ability to complement the scoring and rebounding with a tenacity for blocking shots — 18 on the year — will make Tuesday night very challenging for the likes of Hawkins and Dain Dainja.
“We’re not gonna shy away from it,” Hawkins said. “It’s going to be an effort from all of us.”
The Illini know that regardless of what Syracuse has done thus far this season, they cannot afford to underestimate Boeheim’s squad.
“They’re always going to be an NCAA Tournament-caliber team,” Underwood said. “[We’re] expecting to have to play very very well to win the game.”