'I actually deleted it off my phone'

'I actually deleted it off my phone'

CHAMPAIGN — The national conversation about the Big Ten last season was the conference, long considered a basketball power, was down. Just four NCAA tournament bids — albeit with a run to the national title game by Michigan — was the end result.

This year? The script has flipped on the Big Ten with as many as 10 or 11 teams still in the running for the NCAA tournament at the midway point of the season. Even if BTN analyst and former Penn State guard Jon Crispin, who was on the call Wednesday night for Illinois-Minnesota, only sees a max of nine actually making it.

"Everybody in the middle of the pack is fighting for an NCAA tournament spot," Crispin said about the seven teams after Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland. "They're all NCAA tournament teams, and it comes down to, can you go at least .500 in that middle of the pack?

"Even though they're saying the NET rankings are going to be what the (selection committee) will weigh heavily, the Pac-12 is still going to get two or three teams in just because we've got to keep everybody happy. We still live in that kind of world. The Big Ten's not going to get 11 teams of 14 in the NCAA tournament."

Still, the narrative change around the Big Ten this season has been drastic. The groundwork for that bounce back to more of a national power conference, Crispin said, started at the end of last year.

"You saw Wisconsin come on," he said. "You saw Indiana come on late. I think you could see there would be really good teams this year — particularly when you look at Nebraska, who was fourth in the conference yet didn't make the NCAA tournament.

"It was set up to be a really strong year from top to bottom. I think the question coming into this year was whether we were going to have any elite teams and lo and behold look at Michigan — surprise, surprise they're going to be the top team in the country."

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Crispin credited the Big Ten's surge back to the top this season on the nature of the conference. Coaches who have been around a while. Veteran rosters. And just a sprinkle of one-and-done talent.

"I think that the Big Ten is a really interesting look into how college basketball should be," Cripsin said. "You have a lot of three- and four-year players at these universities. You have long-tenured coaches. They build programs. They don't just try to attract one-and-done kids and then try to reload the next year. We have a really good thing going in this conference. What you saw last year was just a down year with teams reloading and three new coaches."

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Ayo Dosunmu entered Wednesday night's game against Minnesota shooting 39.7 percent from three-point range. That was good for third among the Illini regulars (behind Aaron Jordan and Trent Frazier) and seventh among Big Ten freshmen who have played at least 400 minutes this season. Maryland's Eric Ayala — a one-time Illinois recruiting target — leads the way in that group shooting 46.8 percent from deep.

Dosunmu has changed his shot in the last year after not really being considered as a dangerous three-point shooting threat coming out of Morgan Park. It's one area former Illini standout Kendall Gill said Dosunmu can clean up more to improve his pro prospects.

"I've just been working," Dosunmu said before he went 3 for 3 from three-point range in the first half of the Illini's 95-68 win against Minnesota. "It's getting better. It's not where I want it at yet, but it's a progress. I'm just going to keep working and keep getting a lot of shots up."

Dosunmu's overall play the last few weeks has been sort of what he expected.

"I always knew it was going to be a struggle coming in," he said. "It's an adjustment from high school basketball. But I always told myself once I get it, like I've said before, I'm going to skyrocket off. I'm starting to get better and better and more comfortable with the college game. I've been working on my game, lifting and eating right."

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Too much social media. That was Illinois coach Brad Underwood's diagnosis of Frazier last week. The sophomore guard apparently took that to heart.

"I've gotten off of Twitter," Frazier said. "I actually deleted it off my phone. Coach always talks about how he doesn't even look at it. It's people that don't know basketball or never played the game.

"My main focus right now is this team and continuing to build as a program and get this team better. Just listen to people who helped me get here and the people who know everything about me, which is my parents and my high school coach."

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Apparently Frazier's doubts about himself were short-lived, too. Less than a week after expressing a lack of confidence in his shot, the 6-1 lefty guard reversed course.

"I have a lot of confidence in myself," Frazier said Tuesday morning. "It's basketball. I realized that. The ball doesn't go in some nights. I've put up a million shots. I've been in the gym continuously working.

"I've always had confidence in myself. This team trusts me, and these coaches trust me."

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Samba Kane played a season-high 16 minutes — and scored a career-high eight points — during Illinois' 77-74 win against UNLV on Dec. 8. A week later, the 7-foot freshman center played 12 minutes in a 73-55 victory against East Tennessee State.

The return of Big Ten play, however, has mostly relegated Kane back to the bench, although he did get some rare early playing time Wednesday against Minnesota.

"I go back to the same thing I've said for some time with Samba," Underwood said. "It's tougher for him because he wasn't here (in the summer). He's still playing catch-up. He's still understanding there's certain situations I don't feel as comfortable with him in as I do (Adonis De La Rosa).

"(Tuesday) he was really, really good in practice. It puts a smile on my face when I see him impacting the game with his athleticism and his shot blocking and catching balls at the rim and dunking them. Those are things, in small doses, he's doing a great job of."

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Illinois is less than a week removed from hosting four-star center Antwan January on his official visit. It was an important time for the Illini after January committed in mid-November.

While Underwood can't speak directly about specific recruits until they sign a letter of intent, he did run through some of what happens on those official visits. One key component is getting any questions answered a recruit might have. Having said recruit meet a number of different people — from the strength and nutrition staff to athletic trainers to academic staff — helps.

The Illini coaches also discuss style of play, need and fit, along with giving recruits and their families a look at how day-to-day operations are handled.

The biggest component of an official visit in Underwood's mind, however? Getting recruits on campus for the gameday experience.

"It is so advantageous for us in the recruiting process to try to make it work in their schedule to get them into a game," Underwood said. "It is our most powerful tool — the State Farm Center, lit up, packed house, ball game and for them to feel that emotion. There's nothing else we can do to enhance the emotion of what goes on in college basketball. When you're putting fannies in seats in that place, that's really, really impressive."

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January didn't sign in November after committing to Illinois. Five-star center Kofi Cockburn committed basically two months after the early signing period closed. That leaves Illinois waiting until April to get their pair of top 100 big men officially on board.

The Illini coaches will keep recruiting both Cockburn and January, but they don't have to deal with nearly the type of prospect poaching and commitment flipping that happens in football.

"I think we have a little different mentality than football," Underwood said. "Guys stay away a little more, but there's no doubt you've got to continue to keep your thumb on them, keep recruiting them and keep contacting them. Yet you feel really, really good about a young prospect when he gives you a commitment and that pledge.

"We've got to keep doing our job — there's no doubt — but that's something we've not really dove into quite as much in other sports. When a kid commits, then it's just a matter of now you know who you have to beat. We don't have that mentality in basketball."Scott Richey