Illinois had plenty to be satisfied about Friday during a 33-point victory over Lindenwood, and right at the top of the list was the efficient play of Skyy Clark.
The No. 16 Fighting Illini hope their first-year point guard can author another strong performance Tuesday when they host Syracuse in Champaign, Ill., as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Clark, a 6-3 freshman from Los Angeles, averaged 7.6 points on 52.6-percent shooting over his first five games for Illinois (5-1). Clark then took his play to another level against Lindenwood, shooting 8 of 9 from the field for a career-high 19 points, while adding four assists.
“As a point guard, you just have to learn how to run your team,” Clark said. “That was one of the biggest things I had to learn coming into college. This team makes my job a lot easier because they’re all great players, they all listen and there aren’t any egos on the team. They also have the same mentality as me, which is to work hard.”
RJ Melendez also worked hard on Friday as the sophomore guard registered a career-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Afterward, he was happy to talk about his backcourt mate.
“(Clark is) a great point guard; he’s changed so much since I saw him in the summer,” Melendez said. “He was the type of guy who was kind of shy, but now he’s getting a lot of confidence — from the scrimmage game to now, it’s just a whole different Skyy. We’re proud of him. He’s come so far, and he has a lot more to go.”
Another player who has come on quickly is Syracuse freshman Justin Taylor, who scored seven total points in his first four games before erupting for 25 in Saturday’s 73-72 loss to Bryant.
Fellow freshman Chris Bell added a career-high 14 for the Orange, while veteran center Jesse Edwards pulled in a personal-best 21 rebounds, only to watch his team fall on a floater by Bryant with 0.8 seconds to play.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had a feeling his team might struggle to score without starting forward Benny Williams, who was limited to nine minutes with a stomach bug, and talented freshman Judah Mintz, who was ejected following a first-half skirmish.
“Without Benny, without Judah, we’re really in a hard situation,” Boeheim said, yet noting that Taylor and Bell came up big. “They both really played well, really played well.”
On the other hand, Joe Girard made just one of 12 shots from the field for five points, and is just 2-for-22 over the past two games.
“Joe’s been struggling. No explanation for it,” Boeheim said. “We obviously need him to play better.”
The Illini and Orange have met only three times – and not since Syracuse pulled out a 75-64 triumph in 1995 on a neutral court in Honolulu. The previous matchup was a 1989 Elite 8 showdown at Minneapolis, won by Illinois 89-86.
Syracuse is 4-5 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, while Illinois is 10-13 in the event.
–Field Level Media