Illinois guard Trent Frazier

Jeffrey Becker/USA Today Sports

Hershkovich: Arrow Pointing Up For Illini

Late in the season, Illinois is flashing its promise that lies ahead.

Eli Hershkovich
February 20, 2019 - 3:54 pm
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(670 The Score) Winners of five of their past seven games, the Illinois Fighting Illini have begun to turn a corner in coach Brad Underwood's second season in their quest to restore hope for a once nationally proud program.

In large part because of some bad non-conference losses, Illinois (10-16, 6-9 in the Big Ten) won’t earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament unless it captures the Big Ten Tournament, but the Illini have flipped the switch in conference play after going 1-7 in their first eight such games. That revival has started with a defensive turnaround.

Illinois' opponents are averaging 0.97 points per possession in the past five contests after allowing 1.06 points per possession in conference play previously. That’s a credit to Underwood’s ball-pressure scheme, which is turning opponents over at the 12th-highest rate in Division-I -- 23.2 percent.

"I think we have arrived, and I know one thing," Underwood told reporters after a six-point loss at Wisconsin on Monday evening. "I wouldn’t want to play Illinois."

The identity that Underwood is implementing was successful in his past stops at Stephen F. Austin (2013-'16) and Oklahoma State (2016-'17). All of those teams boasted a top-50 ranking in opponents’ turnover percentage, including the nation’s highest in his final season with the Lumberjacks.

The Illini’s backcourt has been a catalyst and is guided by sophomore Trent Frazier, freshman Ayo Dosunmu, a Chicago native, and junior Andres Feliz off the bench. Frazier and Feliz are set to return when the Illini have higher hopes next season, while Dosunmu's future is uncertain because of his lofty talents. He's ranked as the No. 26 player on ESPN’s big board for the 2019 NBA Draft could be ready to ascend to the next level. The 6-foot-5 Dosunmu has the size and has flashed the shooting to have promise at the next level, though he has clear areas to improve as well, such as a 1.45 assist-to-turnover ratio.

With college hoops trending toward a position-less game, having three viable ball-handlers and creators is as critical as ever. Illinois' trio has been delivering that of late.

"We’re in the infant stages of understanding what college basketball is all about," Underwood said.

Dosunmu has shot a respectable 34.8 percent from 3-point range, while Frazier is shooting at a strong 41.5-percent clip from there. Their successful ball pressure on the defensive end also allows for an increased tempo, which has created more 3-point opportunities for them going the other way.

In the frontcourt, 6-foot-9 freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili has emerged as a reliable low-post threat, averaging 18.5 points over his last four contests. On Monday, he went toe-to-toe with Naismith Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ in Illinois' loss to Wisconsin, holding Happ to just six points on 3-of-7 shooting.

"That’s what our defense does," senior Aaron Jordan told reporters. "It’s a mind game here. Just knowing that you have to go up against that pressure, just one night out of the year, that messes with people a lot."

Looking ahead, Illinois secured a commitment from four-star recruit Kofi Cockburn on Jan. 6. He also received offers from Auburn, Arizona State, UConn and Cal. The 10th-rated center by 247Sports in his class, Cockburn projects to provide the Illini a dynamite rebounder and rim protector from the get-go.

If Dosunmu returns for the 2019-'20 campaign, Illinois projects to be one of the top five teams in the Big Ten and likely end what by then will be a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought. Frazier and Dosunmu would represent one of more underrated backcourts in the country for a team that could be on the rise back to relevance.

Eli Hershkovich is a producer for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @EliHershkovich.