Illinois suffered a disappointing loss on Saturday in Iowa City, falling to the Hawkeyes, 81-79, snapping a 5-game winning streak against their newfound rivals.
While the loss was hard to swallow, the Illini went on the road and played extremely well, withstanding many Iowa offensive flurries and nearly overcoming a second-half free throw onslaught to pick up a huge road victory.
One of the biggest reasons for that? Blossoming freshman point guard Jayden Epps.
Epps has continued to impress across his freshman campaign, and Saturday’s performance in Iowa City may have been the best we’ve seen of him yet.
16 points, 5 assists, 0 turnovers, big bucket after big bucket.
A run of 12 straight points in the second half in which he showcased nearly every trick in his bag.
In fact, let’s take a look back at that stretch. You tell me if this looks like a freshman.
Trails in transition, bodies up a 6-foot-9, 230-pound center, scores.
Leaves Ahron Ulis in this dust with this nasty behind-the-back pull-up jumper.
Just an incredible finish near the end of the shot clock. You can’t teach this.
Crowd really starts to get into it after a Kris Murray and-1 at this point. Jayden Epps silences it by blowing by Sandfort for one of his own. As Stephen Bardo said on the broadcast, you don’t even realize how tough the angle is on this finish.
If all that wasn’t enough, how about splashing in a three.
To go into a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, in a rivalry environment, and have the game Epps did speaks volumes about what the young Illini point guard has become and the endless possibilities for his future.
He’s the exact type of player who will absolutely haunt Big Ten teams for (hopefully) four years.
But Saturday wasn’t just the start for him.
Epps has scored in double figures in 10 of his last 12 games. The common theme of a lot of his buckets during that stretch have been late clock, high-pressure, tough takes to the basket that showcase a skillset well ahead of his years.
His feel and touch around the basket are remarkable. His ability to get to his right hand and create space in traffic is unnatural for someone his age. With a little work on making the jumper more consistent (currently 33.3% from three), it’s easy to envision Epps’ name atop the Big Ten scoring charts one day.
Scoring aside, Epps is developing into a high-level lead guard. He hasn’t had a game with more than two turnovers since Jan. 7 against Wisconsin. On the season, he’s averaging a mere 1.3 turnovers per game despite playing nearly 26 minutes. His 15.1% turnover rate ranks second on the team behind only Matthew Mayer.
The assist numbers haven’t blown anybody away, but that’s to be expected on a team where the likes of Terrence Shannon, Coleman Hawkins and Mayer have the ball in their hands quite a bit, and in the spread offense that doesn’t rely on a single playmaker.
Still, he’s continuing to improve (see Saturday’s 5-assist day) and his poise and confidence with the ball will undoubtedly allow him to have success running present and future Illini offenses.
“That’s my personality,” Epps said after Saturday’s game when asked about having that type of poise. “I never get too high, never get too low.”
It’s easy to see that when you watch this kid play.
He’s the future of Illinois basketball.