CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Down 14 with less than 10 minutes to play in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Arkansas, RJ Melendez went on a run. The sophomore singlehandedly got the Illini back in the game scoring eight straight points, showing what he can bring. But that moment was just a glimpse of a season Melendez would rather forget.
After a strong finish to this freshman campaign, Melendez was a breakout candidate coming into 2022-23 but it never materialized. Instead the 6-foot-7 wing struggled to shoot, especially beyond the arc, finishing the season 24-for-91 (26.4%) from 3. That included a stretch from December to February where Melendez went 6-for-44 from 3. Through it all, head coach Brad Underwood continued to play him, despite removing Melendez from the starting lineup at times.
“I mean it’s been pretty tough but just stay with the process,” Melendez said. “Coach (Underwood) never lost confidence in me to keep shooting the ball so I feel like that’s a big part of it and just having my coaches and teammates having the confidence in me and passing me the ball and that’s a big thing so I just kept working on it and let the game come to me.”
Despite the struggles, Melendez’s performance in the NCAA tournament once again provided a spark heading into the offseason. Melendez finished with 10 points and a team high six rebounds against the Razorbacks. It followed his performance against Houston in the second round of the Big Dance last season, when the then freshman came off the bench to score nine points in the loss, second most of the Illini in the game.
“RJ Melendez probably went through one of the most interesting seasons, and to see him finish it off was unbelievable,” Underwood said. “He showed his ability and what he’s going to be in the future. I’m so proud of this young man. I am. Only he knows the true struggle that he’s had. It’s been real. Everybody has talked about it. He’s felt it. He’s an elite shooter. He’s an elite player. To gain that confidence, I hope this is a springboard for him into what becomes a great, great offseason, with Fletch and then makes that jump. You know, when you become a junior you’re familiar with everything, and then you’re confident, to end it like he did today, that was pretty special and I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be more proud. I’ve got a lot of really positive things going with RJ because he’s, we talk all the time. When you have a speed bump in life you always come out better on the other side, and that was evident today.”