Illinois guard Da'Monte Williams (20) and St. Francis' Carlos Tovias (11) in a exhibition game at the State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

Listen to this article


A descriptive word so good in breaking down what Illinois created defensively in Saturday night’s exhibition game against St. Francis (Ill.) that Coleman Hawkins used it twice. The Illini’s collection of strong on-ball defenders and long-armed athletes up and down the rotation hardly gave the Fighting Saints a fighting chance.

“I think it’s just havoc for opposing teams when we get on defense and are talking, showing our length and guarding multiple positions,” Hawkins said. “Even sometimes we have to switch, we can switch. It’s just going to be havoc for other teams.”

The proof was in the box score.

St. Francis committed 26 turnovers on Saturday night. Sixteen of them were straight steals, with Trent Frazier leading Illinois with six steals and Andre Curbelo and Da’Monte Williams coming up with three apiece.

The Saints also shot just 24.5 percent overall and 26.9 percent from three-point range. Contested shots against the Illinois defense were the norm.

The Illini’s length was a problem for St. Francis. It starts in the starting lineup with Williams, who stands just 6-foot-3, but has a 6-11 wingspan. Then Illinois coach Brad Underwood brought Hawkins, Omar Payne and Austin Hutcherson off the bench together. Just length on length on length.

“I think it gives us versatility in being able to put Coleman at the 3 and guard and be able to do some switching if we need to,” Underwood said. “It was a positive for us. … We really, I hope, tried to accomplish the effort piece to this. Trent Frazier set that tone pretty good at the start.”

Frazier is Illinois’ defensive leader. An All-Big Ten Defensive Team selection a year ago, Frazier showed Saturday against St. Francis his abilities at that end of the court haven’t changed. Even if Frazier said he was “old now” as a 23-year-old super senior.

“Apparently, I still have it,” Frazier said after joking he feels like he’s 30 sometimes when he steps on the court. “I challenge myself to take on the ball (defense) seriously every time because the’s what I do. I want to be the guy to bring that energy on the defensive end for my teammates.

“I challenge myself and challenge other guys on the team to sit down and guard the ball. We have a lot of different guys that can also do what I do. It’s just all about wanting to do it — playing with effort and playing hard.”

Underwood regularly used Frazier as an example Saturday night during timeouts. The effort the 6-foot-2 guard was exerting on the defensive end? It needed to be a team thing.

"Literally, I brought it up three times,” Underwood said. “It was a point of emphasis at halftime. Him diving on the floor for a loose ball in an exhibition game. Are you kidding me? But Trent does that every day.”

Frazier’s example apparently rubbed off on his teammates. Freshman guard Brandin Podziemski fully laid out for a loose ball — hitting the floor hard — late in Saturday’s game. That the Illini were leading by 60-plus points clearly didn’t factor in to whether or not to make the hustle play.

It was the type of play, a turnover forced, that harkened back at least a bit to the defensive system Underwood brought with him to Illinois. With Payne and Kofi Cockburn serving as rim protecting deterrents in the paint, the Illini don’t have to revert back to that heavy ball denial scheme.

Still, enough experienced players — particularly of the long-armed variety — might mean an opportunity to get more aggressive.

“I think you saw a big difference (Saturday) between veterans and new guys,” Underwood said. “Veterans anticipated and knew what was coming. If you’re around Trent Frazier too long, you’ve only got to run something once or twice and he’s seen everything that can possible be run at him. He’s comfortable and has tremendous speed and athleticism and breaks on balls. Coleman’s got an ability to anticipate. It’s a nice advantage to have with new guys and their ability to maybe run through some passing lanes and force more turnovers.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

Trending Videos