Led By Trent Frazier, Illinois Aiming For Better

Illinois hosts Evansville in its season opener Thursday night.

Eli Hershkovich
November 08, 2018 - 10:33 am
Illinois guard Trent Frazier

Mike Carter/USA Today Sports

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(670 The Score) Within Illinois sophomore guard Trent Frazier’s first few answers at Big Ten media day, he made sure to proclaim his confidence in regards to his offseason refinements.

"I got hands like Odell Beckham," he said.

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Frazier displayed that trait last season, notching the 56th-highest steal rate (3.5 percent) in college basketball. He also averaged 14.1 points per game in conference play. But the Fighting Illini (14-18, 4-14) struggled as a collective unit amid coach Brad Underwood’s first season at the helm, along with losing some key pieces once it ended.

Leron Black -- Illinois’ leading scorer at 15.3 points per game -- pursued a pro basketball career, and Mark Alstork graduated. Michael Finke (Grand Canyon), Mark Smith (Missouri) and Te’Jon Lucas (UW-Milwaukee) all transferred.

Although Underwood said he’s searching for his team’s identity for the upcoming season, he still expects it to make strides, even with a rigorous non-conference schedule and low expectations externally. In a preseason poll conducted by the Athletic and Columbus Dispatch, Illinois was pegged to finish 13th in the Big Ten.

"Sometimes, the first year, you feel like you’re running on a treadmill and not going anywhere, and then all of a sudden something clicks and you start moving north," Underwood said. "I really feel strongly that we’re on that path, and this group is the group that’s going to do that. That’s why we’re playing the toughest schedule in the country ... Our time is there."

Illinois opens its season by hosting Evansville on Thursday night. On the schedule later are Georgetown, No. 3 Gonzaga and Notre Dame. Illinois will also face either Arizona or Iowa State in its second game in the Maui Invitational, while No. 4 Duke, No. 11 Auburn, San Diego State and Xavier loom on the other side of that bracket. The Illini will face one of those latter four teams as well in their final game in Hawaii.

For the second straight season, the Big Ten schedule begins in early December. Illinois opens by squaring off against Nebraska and Ohio State.

The Illini likely won’t be favored in many conference contests. If the program possesses any chance of pulling off some upsets, it’ll fall on the back of Frazier. Underwood noted he’s primed for the freshman-to-sophomore leap.

"He (Frazier) could’ve said, ‘Hey, I'm a good player, I’m always gonna be a pretty good player,’" Underwood said. "He’s tried to make himself better ... through (hard) work and understanding what his weaknesses are, became a better right-hand driver, became a better leader."

Frazier had 19 points in an exhibition win over Illinois Wesleyan on Friday, and five-star recruit-turned-freshman Ayo Dosunmu started alongside him in the backcourt. A 6-foot-5, 185-pound Morgan Park graduate, Dosunmu had 13 points, four steals, one assist and five turnovers.

Not only did Frazier praise Dosunmu for his defensive tenacity, but he also cited Dosunmu’s impressive court vision. The two are both expected to play on and off the ball.

"He (Dosunmu) knows he can score the ball any time he wants, but he gives up open looks all the time just to make a great pass to another teammate, and I think that’s gonna help our younger guys and other teammates gain their confidence," Frazier said. 

Senior wing Aaron Jordan, who boasted the 64th-best 3-point percentage (44.0) in Division I last season, should give a boost from the perimeter in his shift to the starting lineup. The Illini ranked No. 263 overall in that department as a team a season ago. Transfers Adonis De La Rosa (grad) and Andres Feliz (junior college) should provide a much-needed scoring punch, too. 

Underwood gushed over De La Rosa’s knack for observing the game like a coach, considering him a "basketball savant." A 7-foot, 260-pound center, De la Rosa missed the team's lone exhibition game while rehabbing from a torn ACL, which he suffered in March.

With a sound group of newcomers, Frazier emphasized that he needs to guide the unit, especially with an up-tempo style paced by Underwood’s pressure defense.

"I’m like the quarterback," Frazier said. "I have to do everything right for this team to be successful and win."

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