In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse’, Pro Insight’s Alex Brown made the trip to Champaign, Illinois, to provide analysis of the prospects competing in one of the first games in this season’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge: Illinois vs. Notre Dame.
On Monday, Notre Dame traveled to Champaign for their first game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge to play in front of a deafening crowd of 15,000 at the State Farm Center. Andre Curbelo was out and fifth-year seniors Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison were doubtful to suit-up prior to tip, but both ended up playing and leaving a positive impact, combining for 16 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds. Kofi Cockburn was too much for the smaller Notre Dame bigs, and led the way for Illinois in a 10-point win (82-72), despite Notre Dame’s Dane Goodwin and Blake Wesley putting up an impressive fight for the Irish.
Illinois | 7’0” | 285 | Big | Junior | 22.3
Game Stats: 28 points, 8 rebounds (3 ORB, 5 DRB), 2 assists, 0 steals/blocks, 3 turnovers, 4 fouls, 11/16 FG, 6/9 FT
Perhaps the most physically imposing player in college basketball, Cockburn dominated the paint against the smaller Notre Dame bigs. Once he caught the ball in the paint, it was pretty much a death sentence for whoever was defending him. If he is on balance and patient, there is little chance he isn’t scoring if he catches it deep or gets to an isolation in the post. This was certainly the case against Nate Laszewski and Paul Atkinson on Monday evening.
What was so interesting about Cockburn in this matchup was that Notre Dame used Nate Laszewski (6’10, 235, stretch big) in stretches at the 5 spot to try and get Cockburn out on the perimeter on the defensive end to counteract the punishment he would give them on the offensive end. In short, it didn’t really work.
Laszewski got quite a few open pick-and-pop looks (1/3) and had a nice rim attack against a poor closeout from Cockburn, but only scored five total points against him. Schematically, the idea of beating Cockburn (other than getting him into foul trouble) starts with having a stretch big that can shoot it with volume and put it on the floor well enough to create power plays when Cockburn is forced to defend the perimeter. If a team can do that successfully, they have a chance to play the Kingston, Jamaica native off the floor.
However, these schemes are only valuable if they can notably mitigate (or eliminate) the advantage Cockburn provides on the interior, offensively. Incidentally, Cockburn dominated Laszewski on the interior, going 5/6 in the paint against him while drawing three fouls. Paul Atkinson had only slightly better success; limiting Kofi to 3/5 overall (1/3 in isolations). However, Paul only scored three points and played just 20 minutes, total.
If teams cannot capitalize and consistently exploit Cockburn's defensive shortcomings on the perimeter, they will lose the battle of the bigs every single time at he college level. While Cockburn's high-volume, domineering style is unlikely to work to such a degree at the NBA level due to the offensive volume drop-off, Cockburn is still an intriguing challenge for college teams to battle.
Notre Dame | 6’5” | 185 | Guard | Freshman | 18.7
Game Stats: 24 points, 3 rebounds (1 ORB, 2 DRB), 0 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 2 turnovers, 1 foul, 9/12 FG, 1/2 3FG, 5/8 FT
I was anxious to see this freshman guard who had popped on film due to his wiry physicality, motor, defensive upside, and three-level scoring. Wesley did not disappoint, scoring a career-high 24 points in a career-high 25 minutes.
A few intriguing areas on film showed up immediately in person via Wesley's motor, mobility, and relentless offensive attack. He was incredibly efficient as a self-creator in pick-and-roll, getting to and owning his spots with a notable level of comfort. He has solid touch as a shooter, as well, and isn’t afraid to pull-up off the dribble. Furthermore, what popped the most was how he was attacking Kofi Cockburn every chance he could, and the freshman did not back down from being physical with the 7’0, 285-pound junior. [Author's Note: one former Big Ten starter told me last year that Kofi was the single strongest player he ever had to battle, and that it wasn’t even close. That didn’t seem to faze Blake at all, as he attacked with an extra edge.]
The notable areas Wesley should be focusing on improving are his playmaking, free throw shooting, and off-ball defense. For someone with his scoring tools, leveraging them as a playmaker is the next step in order to break out as the future leader of this Notre Dame program. Furthermore, with JJ Starling coming in next season, Notre Dame may very well have one of the most promising young guard tandems in the country.
A Trio of Intriguing Young Wings
Ramses “RJ” Melendez
Illinois | 6’7” | 205 | Wing | Freshman | 19.0
Game Stats: 6 points, 1 rebound (1 DRB), 1 assists, 0 steals, 1 block, 0 turnovers, 0 fouls, 2/4 FG, 2/2 3FG
Melendez had an excellent showing in his 14 minutes, starting his first ever game for Coach Underwood. While he is only averaging 10 minutes per game, the freshman capitalized on his opportunity by hitting both of his triples and playing through some pain. The area most worth tracking with Melendez is which of his various tools becomes his primary value driver: will it be toughness and defensive strides? Shooting? All of the above? Regardless, he had a strong showing during his limited time in a game where Illinois needed him to show up, and our staff is looking forward to tracking his progress over time.
Illinois | 6’7” | 200 | Wing | Freshman | 19.3
Game Stats: 3 points, 2 rebounds (2 DRB), 0 assists, 1 steal, 0 blocks, 0 turnovers, 1 foul, 1/2 FG, 1/2 3FG
Goode’s calling card is his jump shot at 6’7", but he also seems to really be buying into the toughness that Coach Underwood is emphasizing in his program. What really stood out with Luke was how he brought energy when he wasn’t in the game, constantly standing and hyping up his teammates. When you aren’t in the game, the best thing you can do is support your teammates, and Luke was that guy in this one.
Illinois | 6’10” | 215 | Wing | Sophomore | 20.0
Game Stats: 4 points, 7 rebounds (2 ORB, 5 DRB), 0 assists, 0 steals/blocks, 3 turnovers, 3 fouls, 2/3 FG, 0/1 3FG
Perhaps the best long-term NBA prospect on Illinois’ roster, Hawkins is a modern, perimeter-oriented combo forward that has the mobility and tools to defend multiple positions. He also brings a unique blend of skills to the offensive end, along with a competitive edge. While he was benched early on for a few notable processing mistakes, there is no denying that he has an excellent foundation to build on for a versatile, modern forward that is just scratching the surface of his potential. While he may not be ready for the league as of December 2021, our group has a strong feeling that he will have his name called in one of the next two drafts as he continues to hone his primary value-driving skills.
Additional Notre Dame Prospects
Notre Dame | 6’10” | 235 | Big | Senior
Game Stats: 13 points, 4 rebounds (1 ORB, 3 DRB), 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover, 4 fouls, 5/9 FG, 3/7 3FG
Laszewski was on the radar as a prospect with high expectations coming into this season after shooting 43% from deep as a junior, but has had a slow start to his senior year, thus far. He brings value as a stretch big and rebounder, but he needs to be shooting the three well to have a winning impact. When he isn’t shooting or rebounding, there just hasn't been a lot going on with Laszewski early in the season. He struggles to defend the interior, and most of the time he is not in a position to create on or capitalize on an advantage, His zero free throw attempts on the year speak to the lack of interior self-creation, as well. For his niche, he did well offensively against Illinois, but not well enough defensively to provide a positive impact, overall.
Notre Dame | 6’6 | 208 | Wing | Senior
Game Stats: 15 points, 5 rebounds (5 DRB), 2 assists, 1 steal, 0 blocks, 0 turnovers, 2 fouls, 6/13 FG, 3/4 3FG
Dane Goodwin has had a hot start to the year, averaging a career-high 15 points per game and shooting 50% from deep. Against Illinois, he showcased his mid-range/post self-creation and a gorgeous three-point shot with excellent touch and footwork. He is a highly polished wing at this stage, and looks like a guy that should have a chance in summer league or the G-League draft, down the line.