Putting the 'ILL' in Illini

Putting the 'ILL' in Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Point guard duties fell to freshmen guards Trent Frazier and Mark Smith even more Thursday night against Iowa after sophomore guard Te'Jon Lucas was held out of the game for a violation of team rules.

That further tested Illinois' depth.

Other than Lucas, Illinois had its full complement of players available against Iowa. Available, but not all at 100 percent.

That mirrored the Illini's week-plus of practice, as the Illini have dealt with sickness throughout the entire program dating back to last week's road trips to Minnesota and Michigan.

"We've had the flu bug literally run rampant through our program," Illini coach Brad Underwood said. "It hasn't affected me. Knock on wood. Everybody else has had something — from our secretary to (strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher). We've had a wide spectrum of guys out literally since Minnesota. (Mark) Alstork was throwing up before the Michigan game and trying to play. We've had it run through basically our whole team."

A few Illini, though, managed to avoid catching the bug that ripped through their teammates.

"I don't know how they get sick," Frazier said. "I'm perfect right now."

"I wear coats, hats," Da'Monte Williams added succinctly. "The only thing I don't wear is gloves, but I just keep my hands in my pockets."

• • •

While Greg Eboigbodin has made a leap in the past couple weeks and become a key part of the Illinois rotation, fellow freshman forward Matic Vesel is also improving in practice. Confidence helped Eboigbodin, and Underwood said he's looking for more of the same from the 6-foot-10 Slovenian.

"The one thing we're looking for from him is a confidence he can do it every single day," Underwood said. "Physicality — or lack of — is something he's continuing to grow with and deal with. He gives us a dimension because he's a great passer. We've finally got him shooting the ball. He was a kid who was very reluctant when he got here to shoot. Defensively, he gets it. He's very sound and very solid."

Even with his improved play in practice, Vesel faces a dearth of minutes behind Eboigbodin and Kipper Nichols off the bench.

"He's kind of in that logjam, but he's gotten a ton better, and I'm excited about his future," Underwood said.

• • •

Illinois' quest for more post depth could see the coaching staff tap the transfer market. In that vein, the Illini hosted Mississippi State sophomore Schnider Herard on Thursday night at State Farm Center.

Herard left the Bulldogs late last month and will transfer. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound center appeared in 11 games this season and averaged one point and 2.1 rebounds in 8 minutes per game off the bench.

Herard's limited playing time this season — he gave way to freshman Abdul Ado — was a departure from his first season in Starkville, Miss. The Port-au-Prince, Haiti, native was a Top 50 player in the country and Top 10 center in the Class of 2016 out of Prestonwood Christian in Plano, Texas, and made 19 starts in 32 games as a freshman in the 2016-17 season while averaging 5.1 points and five rebounds per game.

• • •

Several of Illinois' recruiting targets in the 2019 and 2020 classes found their stock improving in the updated Rivals rankings. Two of the Illini's top 2019 targets — Normal West center Francis Okoro and Belleville West forward E.J. Liddell — were ranked No. 34 and No. 42, respectively, as the top two players in Illinois.

Illinois is also recruiting a pair of in-state guards ranked in the Top 40 in the 2020 class by Rivals. Fenwick point guard D.J. Steward came in at No. 36 in the updated rankings, while Morgan Park point guard Adam Miller was two spots lower at No. 38.

• • •

Illinois solved some of its questions on offense by making shots against Iowa, but Underwood has different concerns for his team at that end of the court. He knows he has players that can make shots, which they did against Iowa. Turnovers — although limited Thursday — remain something that bother him more.

"You guys know I'm into numbers," Underwood said. "We're scoring or drawing a foul 66 percent of the time in half court in our spread offense. The problem is with some of those when we're not (drawing the foul) we're turning it over. They're simply passing and catching things.

"We had three or four first-cutter layups in the Michigan game, and we just simply threw the ball out of bounds. That's passing and catching. That's the single biggest fundamental thing, and we work on it a lot."

• • •

After a resurgent performance from Nichols against Michigan, Underwood is also not concerned about what the redshirt sophomore forward can do on the offensive end.

"We're trying to limit his mistakes on the defensive end and keep him dialed in," Underwood said. "His minutes will probably coincide with that. Do we need him? Absolutely."

Underwood wants his entire team — not just Nichols — to be more consistent on the defensive end on the simple things like rotations. When they're not made correctly, that's when the Illini defense is stressed.

"That's been one of our team's biggest challenges is consistency on the defensive end — make teams score through us and not because we made mistakes," Underwood said.

• • •

Aggressive on-ball defense is a critical part of Illinois' defensive system. Having aggressive on-ball defenders like Frazier and Alstork is also crucial. The two of them regularly pester opposing guards.

It's one of the reasons Underwood started recruiting Frazier when he was coaching at Stephen F. Austin.

"You saw (Michigan) stop right across half court — just put the brakes on," Underwood said. "They're not getting the ball into scoring areas to run offense. That's something we talk about a lot and we stress.

"Trent's got to fight. When you're a guy with a smaller stature, you've got to be a fighter, tough and stay underneath people. When Trent gets a little fatigued, he stops doing that. But for the most part, he can be tenacious."

• • •

Frazier's speed is another reason he caught Underwood's eye — both on the recruiting trail a couple years ago and once he took the Illinois job in March. Underwood said the Florida native ranks fourth fastest among the players he's ever coached.

"We want to recruit that way," Underwood said. "We need that speed. The way the game is officiated today, you've got to be able to put pressure on the defense with speed. He doesn't have tremendous physical size, but he has tremendous speed. That helps us."

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Moonpie wrote on January 12, 2018 at 8:01 am

Flu! The new alibi!


When they look like the not even good enough for the NIT team that they are, just chalk it up to flu.

Michael Jordan once won a title game while suffering the flu. Just sayin'!

mvillini wrote on January 12, 2018 at 2:01 pm

The NIT seems to be a fading dream.