'He's getting his sea legs back under him'

‘He’s getting his sea legs back under him’

CHAMPAIGN — When Brad Underwood walked through the gym at the Ubben Basketball Complex on Tuesday, a scheduled day off, the Illinois head coach saw Matthew Mayer drenched in sweat putting up shot after hot.

Mayer’s first three games at Illinois (3-0) after transferring from Baylor haven’t exactly been the most statistically productive. Mayer is averaging 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in 16 minutes per game this season while shooting 31.6 percent from the field and is 3-of-12 (25 percent) on 3-pointers. He hasn’t quite looked like the player he was at Baylor, where he was a rotational player on the Bears’ 2021 national championship team and averaged 9.8 points last season as a starter for a No. 1 seed Baylor team.

Mayer played 25 minutes in a rout of Monmouth on Monday, including 11 in the second half, but did not play for the final 15 minutes of either of the first two games of the season. Underwood, Illinois’ head coach, has made several references to Mayer getting back into peak shape and following a win against Kansas City said Mayer “needs to guard” when asked why Mayer didn’t play for the final 15 minutes of the game.

Still, Underwood doesn’t sound outwardly concerned about Mayer moving forward, particularly as No. 19 Illinois travels to Las Vegas for the Continental Tire Main Event with a game against No. 8 UCLA at 8:30 pm CT Friday and a game against either No. 5 Baylor or No. 16 Virginia on Sunday.

“It’s hard. Look at (Alfonso Plummer) last year,” Underwood said on Wednesday. “There’s nothing easy about transferring. Transferring is really, really, really hard. When you’re four years ingrained in one system and the terminology, it’s not an easy transition. I’m probably utilizing him in different ways than Scott did. It’s not an easy fix. It’s relying on your process, getting in the gym working, gaining confidence. It’s a different locker room. I think transferring is really hard. Some do it easier than others. The process is pretty challenging.”

Plummer (5-for-18 from three in his first four games) and Jacob Grandison (39 total minutes in his first eight high-major contests) both struggled early on after transferring to Illinois, though current Illini wing Terrence Shannon (22.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has made the transition look seamless after transferring from Texas Tech.

Illinois will certainly face adversity in Vegas against a field made up of top-25 teams after facing no on-court adversity in three buy games against low-major teams. Underwood mentioned Mayer, along with Shannon, Coleman Hawkins, Dain Dainja and skyy clark as players who can help navigate through that adversity; while also mentioning there’s a player or two who will surprise the staff with that navigation.

“We know Matt has done (it),” Underwood said. “Matt’s had 25 in an NCAA Tournament game. He’s getting his sea legs back under him, and I expect you’ll see a much better Matt than we’ve seen at this point in these big games.”

What gives Underwood the confidence in Mayer doing that?

“I’ve seen him do it before,” Underwood said. “I’ve seen him do it in practice. It’s just a matter of him going out and having one of those nights. He was in the gym yesterday. (We) walked through the gym and he’s in here soaking wet shooting balls on a day off. Usually good things happen to those who work hard and he’s putting in the time.”

Mayer has certainly been in big moments before while at Baylor. Top-25 matchups aren’t anything new for the 6-foot-9 wing. He’s had four NCAA Tournament games of at least 10 points and played in high-stress situations while at Baylor.

Illinois could sure use Mayer breaking out in Vegas. Though the Illini have routed low-major teams behind the ascension of Shannon, the rebirth of Dain Dainja and play of Coleman Hawkins to go with steady play from the freshmen, Illinois made a splash by adding Mayer in the offseason in the hopes that he could be a key part of keeping it at the top of the Big Ten standings and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Is he the type of player who could turn his game up a notch when the lights come on?

“I hope so. I know he’s trying really hard,” Underwood said. “I mean, Matt’s an unbelievable teammate and an unbelievable young man. He can fall back on his experience of playing in a lot of big events and a lot of big games and know that he’s been very successful. I think we’ll see that Matt this weekend.”

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