CHAMPAIGN — Trent Frazier wore a small, padded upper arm sleeve under his jersey and undershirt Tuesday night.
Illinois’ senior point guard said he’s about 90 percent healthy after suffering a left shoulder injury against Maryland on Jan. 10. Wearing the padded sleeve is just a precautionary move.
“Obviously, there’s still a little bone bruise on my shoulder,” Frazier said before the 22nd-ranked Illini’s 79-65 victory against Penn State at State Farm Center. A win in which he knocked down 3 of 7 three-pointers and finished with 13 points. “That’s why I wear it because with how many screens I run around and run through every night, I try to leave minimum hits on my left shoulder. It doesn’t really affect me. It’s just there for protection. I’m feeling great, so it’s not a problem.”
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Unless the Big Ten schedule changes for the end of this week or early next week, Illinois likely won’t play again until its Jan. 29 home game against Iowa. The Illini could always schedule a nonconference opponent in that gap between games — the cancellation of the UT Martin game from early December has left an open slot — but Illinois coach Brad Underwood has been wary of doing so.
“What gets challenging in that is testing protocols,” Underwood said. “We sure don’t want to just play a game to say we played the game, and they’re not in protocols that we’re in and we put ourselves in harm’s way. I don’t know yet what the league will do in terms of sliding games or moving games around. You’ve got multiple games missed. We’ll see what the league does.”
Neither of Illinois’ postponements this season against Nebraska and Michigan State nor its canceled game against UT Martin was the Illini’s fault. COVID-19 issues in those three programs were the root cause.
Underwood said his team can’t make a big deal of that. The situation, he said, “is what it is.”
“That’s a terrible cliché,” he continued. “I hate it. I can’t believe I just said that, but it’s the truth. The one thing we have learned is you show up every day and do your job at 7:30 (in the) morning and you test. We do a PCR and do an antigen test. We talk to our guys every single day after practice about doing the right things. All we can literally do is keep doing that and pray and hope.
“My most stressful part of the day is at 7:30 every single morning and worrying about 29 other people and making sure they have (negative) tests and they did the right thing. We’ve been doing that for a long, long time.”
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Illinois had its own COVID-19 positives after the team returned to campus in the summer. The Illini have managed the situation, though, duding the season.
“I think we’ve got a group of guys that’s just really into video games,” Frazier said with a laugh. “We always enjoy that. It’s funny, but I’m serious. People may say, ‘What are these guys doing in isolation all the time?’ We’ve got video games. Madden all day, 2K and Fortnite. I’m a big Fortnite player.
“I think the biggest thing is we also get to be around each other a lot. Guys just don’t want to sleep in bed all day. We hang out sometimes. We hang in our little bubble. No one else is allowed in but us.”
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One of Illinois’ goals for this season hasn’t changed despite the postponements and single cancellation. The Illini still want to try and play the NCAA-mandated maximum of 27 games. The reality of doing so, however, is now in question.
“You start looking at the reality of the situation, and I think every coach in the Big Ten would tell you that there’s a great chance that you don’t,” Underwood said. “We want to play as many as we can play, and we’ll look to do that in the safest way we can do it.”
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While the rest of the Illini’s 2020-21 schedule could be a bit fluid, basketball at the high school level in Illinois still has no clearly defined future. Multiple regions throughout the state have entered less restrictive COVID-19 tiers and phases, but basketball, currently deemed a high-risk sport, still doesn’t seem close to a season.
Underwood reached out to the IHSA last week and also tweeted support for high school athletes across the country saying the University of Illinois could be a resource as the IHSA continues to work toward a return to play.
“If we have a season, great,” Underwood said. “If we don’t, it’s obviously for health and safety reasons. I just wanted them to know and coaches around the state to know. We’ve lost some communication lines with them just in terms of the pandemic.
“There’s great prospects in every spot. It’s an extracurricular activity — I understand that — but for some it’s an opportunity to be seen. We’ll have to figure out those other ways to evaluate young people in any sport. I’m a bleeding heart in a lot of cases. I do sympathize and empathize with them, but I do understand the state’s situation as well. It’s tough all the way around. The pandemic has been a challenge for everybody.”
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Underwood has spent time in the Big 12 as an assistant and head coach. A year in the SEC, too, as an assistant for Frank Martin at South Carolina. Nothing, he said, compares to the type of coaches in the Big Ten.
“Being in the SEC, being in the Big 12, I haven’t seen anything close like this,” he said. “That’s not to offend any of the coaches in those leagues because there are great ones, but night in and night out the coaching in this league is fabulous.”
Particularly when it comes to defensive game planning. It’s not a surprise to Underwood that possessions decrease once Big Ten play starts. The game changes.
“This league has some very, very gifted defensive-minded coaches,” Underwood said. “They’re going to scheme you. Every game they’re going to sit in there and try to take away what you do the best. You better have counter ‘A’ and counter ‘B’ ready. From that standpoint, you can have it ready, but now can your players go execute it? Can they make those shots? Can they make those adjustments?”