CHAMPAIGN — Doug Bucshon of Rivals.com commented last week: “If Brad Underwood built a basketball player from scratch, he would probably look a lot like Ty Rodgers. A perfect match.”
Coaches for the FIBA U18 Americas team agreed after watching the 6-foot-6 playmaker assist in a championship run with his penetrating, passing, rebounding, defending.
Except scoring. Rodgers is reluctant to shoot. He attempted just 18 shots in six games, making 13. It was reminiscent of his last two high school tournament games at Thornton of Harvey, when he scored nine points in a 65-41 defeat of Kankakee and a foul-troubled six points in a 56-49 upset loss to Lemont.
“I tried to get him to shoot more,” said Thornton coach Tai Streets. “But that’s not his nature.”
Filling a major voidIt raises the question: With so much athleticism and versatility on the squad in 2022-23, where will Illini points come from?
Gone is the steady production of Kofi Cockburn. Gone are 41 percent three-point marksmen Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison. Gone is the clutch play of Trent Frazier.
This is a Big Ten Conference that has been packed with scorers in the 20-point range.
Last season saw Iowa’s Keegan Murray at 23.3, Cockburn at 21.0, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis at 20.0, and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell at 19.4, plus four others over 17 points per game.
Likely Illini leader will be 6-6 Terrence Shannon Jr., who averaged 9.8, 12.9 and 10.4 the last three years for balanced and deep Texas Tech squads. Shannon lifted his three-point shooting to 38.4 percent last season.
Also arriving with high expectations for more playing time is 6-9 Matthew Mayer, who averaged 4.6, 4.8, 8.1 and 9.8 in four campaigns for Baylor, the 2021 NCAA champions.
Twenty-point scorers are always necessary.
Baylor just tied national champion Kansas for the Big 12 title without a scorer averaging as much as 14 points.
Waiting in the wingsBut so far, Illinois can’t point to a squad member who has averaged even 11 points in college play. Coleman Hawkins, 6-10 Illini junior, has been spotty, managing 5.9 points over 19 minutes last season while shooting a disappointing 29.2 percent on threes and 65 percent at the free-throw line.
Drawing more optimism for a breakout season is 6-7 RJ Melendez, last of the UI’s Puerto Rican clan.
Despite multiple setbacks, Melendez made brief appearances in 22 games, showing skills in the open court and draining 9 of 15 treys. He and fellow 6-7 sophomore Luke Goode demonstrated impressive touch from the arc. At center, Baylor transfer Dain Dainja (6-9) enters his third year of college with essentially no college experience.
New to the mixWhat about the freshmen? A trio of guards — Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris — were prolific scorers in high school with Clark projected as the likely Illini starter at point.
But, remember, history tells us that college freshmen seldom shoot with the same accuracy they displayed as high school seniors. Best example: Ayo Dosunmu shot 29.6 percent on treys as an Illini rookie.
So we return to the original question.
Who will take charge offensively on this reshuffled squad? Will anyone step up as a 15- to 20-point scorer, as the last-shot taker like Dosunmu? Or will it be a balanced effort with a different lead scorer every game?
Underwood expects 75 points per game, at a minimum, and it will ultimately play itself out.The good news is that the Illini have size throughout the roster, extraordinary athleticism that carries over into rebounding and defense, and individuals like Rodgers who have penetrate-and-kick skills and the mentality to set up their teammates.
The points will come.