CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Basketball season is officially back.
A week removed from the first game action in exhibition format against Quincy, No. 23 Illinois is starting its regular season on Monday against Eastern Illinois.
The Illini, led by head coach Brad Underwood, are coming off a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, but a successful three-year stretch (44 Big Ten wins, most in the conference).
However, this team is almost entirely different.
On Friday, Underwood and RJ Melendez addressed the media to preview the upcoming matchup against EIU.
Vets Step Up
Entering the 2021-22 season, the Illini had plenty of veteran returners, highlighted by Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison.
This bulk of stars led the team to a Big Ten regular season title, but they’ve all moved onto different places this year.
“It’s just a whole new team,” Melendez said.
Along with Melendez, Coleman Hawkins and Luke Goode are the only players returning to the team who saw significant playing time last season. After Goode’s preseason injury, it leaves just two left.
Going into the summer, Melendez knew that he needed to make massive strides from his freshman season to take charge of a much different team in the fall.
“I knew I had a bigger role this year,” Melendez said. “I had to put that work in.”
Underwood is impressed by the work he’s done. He stressed that after watching Melendez last season struggle to play consistently, he is now capable of so much more.
“I see a whole different RJ Melendez,” Underwood said. “I see a guy with tremendous confidence — I see his swagger. There’s nothing on the court that I don’t think he can do.”
While Melendez is only a sophomore, Hawkins comes in as the best outlet of experience for this Illinois team. Experiencing two Big Ten titles in his first two years, Hawkins saw his playing time increase.
His true potential showing last season when Cockburn wasn’t on the floor.
“That was a pretty good snapshot of life without him,” Underwood said. “We saw [Hawkins] flourish in those scenarios.”
Both Melendez and Hawkins won’t be the only experienced athletes on the team. Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech) and Matthew Mayer (Baylor) came to Illinois after long-time stints at their respective programs, both of which included national championship appearances.
The transfers have the most experience on the team, but it takes some time adjusting to a new environment. In the exhibition game against Quincy, they shot a combined 5-of-17.
“[Mayer]’s been engrained in a system for 4 years,” Underwood said. “Now it’s different. Now our expectation level is a little different.”
Underwood added that both Mayer and Shannon Jr. have been unbelievable in practice, and it’s only a matter of time until that elite play translates to the big stage.
Leadership in New Places
The veterans aren’t the only ones who need to step up for the Illini. The new recruiting class brings in some of the best young talent in the country, and unlike past years, these rising stars will need to contribute heavily to this team’s success.
“They’re great players,” Melendez said. “They’re gonna help us a lot.”
Harris has already turned heads around Illini nation, but the reason may not be what you’d expect.
“He reminds me a lot of Trent Frazier,” Melendez said.
RJ, you aren’t alone. With his lefty shooting form, a white headband, and the same No. 1 jersey, Harris has received many comparisons to the Illini great.
Some people, like his head coach, say that Harris is on track to be better than Frazier. Underwood stated that the quickness and defensive competitiveness shown by the young phenom make him much more developed than Frazier was at his age.
“Trent didn’t have all that as a freshman,” Underwood said. “[Harris] has a lot of that competitive fire already.”
Rodgers is another freshman who has already made strides with the team. His versatility has allowed him to play at every position in practice.
While Underwood is both excited and scared about what his versatility brings to every position, the extra-effort plays that Rodgers makes embody exactly what he wants in his players.
“Those are things that winning players do, and he’s a winner,” Underwood said
His play may remind fans of a familiar face from past years: Andrés Feliz. His bulldog mentality gives him the potential to make this team go above and beyond.
“He does everything to make everybody better.”
Clark comes to Illinois as one of the top recruits in program history. Fans got their first look at the point guard in last month’s exhibition, where he only attempted one shot in the first half.
Underwood explained that Clark’s production stems exactly from what the defense gives him.
“Right now, he’s trying to be an unbelievable teammate, leader, and point guard,” Underwood said. “Those things will happen naturally for him. He’s wired to score.”
Eastern Illinois may sound familiar to Illini fans. In 2017, Underwood’s first game as the Illinois head coach ended in shock, as his team lost an exhibition to Eastern Illinois, 80-67.
“I remember Trent crying after the game, saying he couldn’t play here,” Underwood said. “I remember wondering if we were ever going to win a game that year.”
The history Underwood has with this in-state opponent extends to its head coach: Marty Simmons.
Underwood played against Simmons in his college days, and he admired his work at Evansville for years. Underwood knows that any team led by Simmons can’t be underestimated, especially with how much he’s done since he took over as head coach last year. They even brought in transfers, like former Illini Jermaine Hamlin.
“He’s turned that around pretty quick,” Underwood said. “His staff has done a nice job of replacing the talent.”
Since that unforgettable game in 2017, Underwood has completely turned the Illini basketball program around.
“We’re in a better place than we were then,” Underwood said. “We’ve got to show up and play to win.”
He has brought a different level of determination to this squad, and each player understands the challenges that come with the first official game as a team.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Melendez said.