It's Trent Frazier's kind of town

It's Trent Frazier's kind of town

CHAMPAIGN — The hesitation crossover that set Wisconsin’s All-Big Ten forward Ethan Happ back on his heels brought the State Farm Center crowd to its feet, an anticipatory rumble running through the arena.

The three-pointer off the separation, that move created ignited the Illinois faithful. They roared. And did so again on a 28-foot pull-up to beat the shot clock just a minute later. 

Those were just two of the seven three-pointers Trent Frazier hit earlier this month. It was the second time in less than a month the freshman guard went 7 of 11 from three-point range, and it helped him set a new career high with 32 points. 

That performance put Frazier in the same conversation as two of Illinois’ best. Only Deon Thomas and Kiwane Garris ever scored more as freshmen for the Illini, and they currently sit 1-2 among the program’s all-time leading scorers.

Frazier has breathed life into the Illini multiple times in the last few months. In a season defined more by missed opportunities and winnable games that ended up as anything but, the freshman from Florida has given Illinois fans reason to cheer. Reason to have perhaps even just an inkling of hope moving forward.

Like when he sank 10 of 11 free throws to help Illinois extend its Braggin’ Rights win streak to five with a late December victory against Missouri. Or when he hit five straight three-pointers during a stretch against Rutgers in January.

Like most other Big Ten games this season, the Feb. 8 matchup with Wisconsin ended in an Illinois loss — one of 14 this season heading into today’s regular-season finale at Rutgers. But it doubled as another breakout moment for Frazier. 

The first of many if he has anything to say about it.

“I feel like I’ll have more of those nights,” Frazier said. “That’s just what I do. The biggest thing is my confidence. I think it’s just so high up right now that every time I step out on the court I don’t fear anything anymore. I feel like I can just do anything, play my game and help my teammates win.”

There’s a reason Brad Underwood can’t help but use the word “swagger” when discussing Frazier. There isn’t a three-pointer the 6-foot-1 guard doesn’t like or an open lane to the basket the shifty lefty won’t take.

Underwood wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He’s the one kid I knew that had tremendous swagger,” the first-year Illinois coach said. “I knew he’d have big games. I knew there would be some nights when he was going to have 20-plus point nights because he’s that guy.

“That’s who he is. He can do some things that not a lot can. The thing that’s exciting about him is he’s got a whole other level or two to go to because he’s going to continue to improve and get stronger.”

‘Nobody could stop me’

Frazier’s basketball journey started 15 years ago in south Florida. That’s when Rodnell Frazier put a ball in his son’s hands for the first time. It was a fit.

Frazier started playing on a travel team at 8 years old, and his knowledge and understanding of the game started to grow. Everyone knew he was a lefty, so his dad sometimes had him practice solely with his right hand.

Even taking to the game early, Frazier wasn’t sure where basketball would take him once he hit middle school. Sixth grade was not a great year.

“Sixth grade I didn’t really think basketball was the sport for me,” he said. “I sat the bench. I played two minutes a game in sixth grade. Seventh grade I had that chance. It really showed me that basketball would take me a lot of places.”

Call it the birth of swagger.

“I felt like nobody could stop me,” Frazier said. “I just played hard and killed everyone. I’ve always had that swagger and demeanor of I want to win. It’s just who I am.”

Frazier’s game — and the way he approached it — grew on the playground at the same time. He started playing pick-up with his dad and his dad’s friends before he hit high school. Basically basketball baptism by fire.

“He’s playing with basically all grown men,” Rodnell Frazier said. “In the first game, he was nervous, and I told all my friends, ‘Beat him up. Pound him. Bang him around.’ And they did it. The second game, the third game, the fourth game? He came back and beat me. I don’t know how he did it.”

Rodnell Frazier’s word of warning to his friends and teammates about guarding his son ultimately went unheeded.

“You guard my son, make sure you play up on him,” he said was the advice. “The dude was backing up, and Trent was driving. He’s beat me three times, and now I’m going to have to listen to this all weekend.”

Those pick-up games with his dad gave Frazier an early taste of what he’s experienced during his freshman season at Illinois. He’s not big now, checking in at 6-1 and 170 pounds. Physical pick-up games became his norm.

“That’s how it is now,” Frazier said. “Going back to that (Feb. 11) Penn State game, they put a lot of big guys on me. I don’t really fear that anymore. Obviously I’m little, but I just got out there and play my game and do what I do. I use my athletic abilities — basically my speed — and try to get by defenders.”

‘He has confidence’

Frazier talks regularly with his high school coach, Matt Colin. Their discussions at the beginning of the season revolved around his shot. Frazier started the year 4 of 31 from three-point range in Illinois’ first 10 games. 

“I was airballing,” Frazier said. “Hitting the ball off the backboard. Missing a lot of shots I usually make. Obviously, I lost a little bit of confidence in myself. I didn’t think I was going to be successful.” 

Colin’s advice was to simply keep getting in the gym, getting more shots up. It’s the same refrain Frazier was hearing from the Illinois coaching staff and his teammates. Keep shooting.

“Once you hit your first shot, remember that feeling and continue to do it,” Colin said was what he told Frazier. “Little things we use for our program — don’t get tired of winning and making shots. It’s the battle of reps. Our philosophy is the more reps you do the right way the better shooter you’re going to be. 

“As they start falling, he got more confident. When he gets confident, you’ll see the explosion like he had for the 32 points. There were some practices where he didn’t miss a shot when he played for me as a senior. It was unbelievable.”

Frazier scored 1,742 points during three varsity seasons at Wellington (Fla.) High School, ending his career as the Wolverines’ all-time leading scorer as they went 81-12 in his three seasons. The Wolverines won an FHSAA Class 8A state title during his sophomore season, and Frazier clinched the victory with a game-winning free throw with four-tenths of a second to play.

“We had other players — other pretty good players — but the guy I wanted with the ball in his hands the last 6-7 seconds was Trent,” Colin said. “He’s always been pretty confident. He has confidence in his abilities. He’s a south Florida kid. They grow up with swagger around here.”

‘That’s my favorite spot’

Frazier’s home away from home in Champaign is Chipotle. That’s where you’ll regularly find him and his roommate, Illini freshman forward Greg Eboigbodin.

“I live there,” Frazier said. “I honestly eat it like three to four times a week. Good food there. If we could have an apartment across the street from there, we’d literally eat it every day. That’s my favorite spot.”

Home away from home back in Florida was Ezell Hester Jr. Community Park and the Hester Community Center in Boynton Beach.

“It was the only place in the city,” he said. “Everyone went there. That was my heart right there. If I wasn’t home, I was there. If I wasn’t there, I was home. That’s a really big, important piece of my life right there that it took me to be successful.

“I grew up there. I lived over there. Played in that gym all the time.”

The hours Frazier spent at Ezell Hester made an impact. He’s studying sports management at Illinois. His eventual post-graduation goal? Run a recreational center for kids just like the one that meant so much to him.

“Just giving back to the community basically,” he said. “Teach kids what I didn’t have when I was younger so they can start from an early age.”

‘It was pretty amazing’

Illinois was the first major conference program to offer Frazier. 

Others eventually got in the mix. Baylor. Kansas State. Georgia. Seton Hall. 

Plus a dozen or so mid-majors.

Former coach John Groce and assistant coach Dustin Ford put in nearly two years’ worth of work in his recruitment. Frazier’s official visit to Champaign in August 2016 sealed the deal. 

“It was a love affair between the school in all aspects — the people, the community and the coaches — and Trent,” Colin said. “He only took one visit, and he didn’t want to go anywhere else. He decided Illinois was home.

“As he got to learn more about the school, he really liked what they were doing there. He felt like it was a place he could succeed. He fell in love with the campus and fell in love with the people.”

Frazier’s connection not just to the basketball team, but to the university as a whole, is what made Illinois still the right decision this past spring when Groce was fired after four straight NCAA tournament misses and Underwood was hired. 

“After what happened with John and everything, everybody thought he was going to back out and all this stuff,” Rodnell Frazier said. “I told him one-on-one, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to stay committed, be loyal?’ He said, ‘I’m staying right there.’ ”

It helped that Underwood recruited Frazier while he was at Stephen F. Austin. A relationship was already established.

“He started recruiting Trent real early,” Rodnell Frazier said of Underwood. “I knew what kind of guy he was. Me personally, as a dad, I love it because I feel like (Underwood’s style) is the only way you’re going to become great. I respect Brad. I respect the whole coaching staff. I love all the guys.

“I love the school, the teachers and how they stay on the student-athletes. At the end of the day, you’re playing something you love, but you’re also getting a degree. That’s what I care about as a dad.”

Frazier had a legion of fans before he even made it to campus this past summer to begin his Illinois career. 

His recruitment wasn’t just the Illinois coaches. 

He received support from the Illini fan base throughout the entire process — something that has continued throughout his freshman season as it has progressed.

“It means a lot to me because of how far I am away from home, knowing that people here appreciate me for coming here and wanting me to be a part of the Illini family,” Frazier said. “Being away from home, basically everyone on this campus is my family. Everyone here that supports the basketball team is my family.”

That was part of the appeal of ultimately choosing the Illini during the recruitment process. 

“He actually kind of, for the first time, saw what it’s like to be loved by a university like Illinois,” Colin said. “It was like a waterfall of love from the school. It wasn’t just from the coaching staff. Now you’ve got this whole fan base that just absolutely adores you.

“It was pretty amazing to see that transpire. I think he loved that he was feeling love for the university, and they were showing it right back. He felt a connection there.”

‘I just sit back and enjoy’

Frazier has struck a chord with Illinois fans. A familiar one, too.

Best Illinois freshman since Dee Brown? The next Dee Brown? 

Frazier’s first season in orange and blue has at least pushed those ideas to the forefront of the Illini fan base. 

He’s the leading scorer among Big Ten freshmen and ranks first in assists and steals among that group, too.

Doing so as an electric point guard that can make plays for himself and his teammates draws parallels to Brown. Doing so with the same type of charisma only strengthens the comparison.

That Brown, who at the time of Frazier’s commitment was serving as Illinois’ director of player development and alumni relations, helped sell him on the Illini is only fitting.

“Dee Brown was the first one to encourage him,” Rodnell Frazier said. “He basically told Trent you’ve got a chance to be better than me. Trent took that to heart. That’s coming form an all-time great. He’s basically telling you (that) you have the potential to come to college and be something special.

“I tell him all the time, that was coming from Dee Brown. Dee Brown said that. No one else. I remember that day very well in Champaign.”

While Frazier has captured the attention of Illinois fans nationwide, he’s got a pocket of ardent supporters back home in Florida. 

His dad and mom, Tineal Gomez, have only made it to one game this season, but that doesn’t mean they’re missing games. 

“I’m watching it on my TV with a bunch of friends,” Rodnell Frazier said. “It’s crazy, real special. I knew my son was good. I didn’t know he was going to excel this quickly. It’s a blessing. I just sit back and enjoy every night he plays — him and his team. I love it.”

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Moonpie wrote on February 25, 2018 at 1:02 pm

Oh, good--swagger. That's the same as winning lots of games, right?

Who needs wins when you have lots of swagger.

Paying dividends, for sure!

BogieRedmonfan wrote on February 25, 2018 at 2:02 pm

Nice to hear about Trent Frazier's family.  They are proud of him.  He is one of the best freshmen in the Big Ten.  That is a good first step.

Hey Moonpie, why can't we have an article on his family?   Did your kids ever play sports?  Were they happy to see you show up at games?   Did you root for them or just snipe at the PA announcer for this and that?  

annabellissimo wrote on February 26, 2018 at 1:02 am

This is a nice article about a young fellow who seems like a nice guy and a terrific basketball player in the making. We really like him in our house, like watching him play and have really liked the difference he has made for the Illini. In interviews, he seems to have a terrific attitude and a lot of poise for such a young guy. I hope somebody has clued him in about "Moonpie" who wrote a comment here, in case Trent Frazier or his family reads this (and any family would be proud and want to read positive articles about their son or daughter). Tell them that "Moonpie" is somebody who never misses an opportunity to bash anything about Illinois sports, often in ugly, snide, mean ways. He especially hates Loren Tate, a long-time sports reporter here, but he hates all things Illinois sports and seems to have a lot of time for his hobby: making nasty comments about Illinois sports. So, Trent Frazier, it has nothing to do with you - he's just mean. You, on the other hand, bring a lot of great energy and smiles to Illinois basketball! Keep up the good work. And remember: there will always be nasty, bitter people who are envious or jealous or just plain angry and wanting to hurt others, but there are also nice folks who have good will and hope for you. "Moonpie" is of the former; pay attention to the latter!

JamBam wrote on February 26, 2018 at 10:02 am

I'll be sure to pull this article up after Trent transfers out this spring.  A competitive player like him will most certainly want to play for a better team, and a better team could certainly use a player as talented as he is. 

Josh Whitman went 4-39 in the B1G in major sports this school year. 

Women's Basketball: 0-16

Men's Basketball: 4-14

Football: 0-9

"We Will Win" right Josh?