KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alfonso Plummer’s first corner three-pointer gave him the inkling that his shooting stroke had returned after a rough start to the season. The Illinois guard still waited until he knocked down his second, though, to let out some emotions with a yell.
“When I made the second one I was like, ‘I’m back,’” Plummer said. “I felt that confidence back.”
Plummer finished one shy short of Illinois’ single-game record with seven made three-pointers in the Illini’s 72-64 victory against Kansas State on Tuesday night in the Hall of Fame Classic at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City. His 7 of 9 performance left him behind the record-holding quartet of Brandon Paul, Trent Meacham, Dee Brown and Kevn Turner.
Plummer’s performance was a glimpse into what Illinois coach Brad Underwood has been saying since the Utah transfer picked the Illini in April. The 6-foot-1 Puerto Rican guard is one of the best shooters Underwood said he’s ever coached.
Plummer making 5 of 18 three-pointers in the first four games of the season didn’t back up Underwood’s claim. Scorching Kansas State for seven makes on nine attempts? That did the trick.
“To be honest, he’s been struggling, and it’s been frustrating,” Underwood said. “We all have. We’ve all been struggling. I bet he’s shot in the last week 6,000-7,000 balls. That’s the kind of stuff that gets him going.”
Plummer concedes his shot was just off early in the first four games of the season where he shot 28.7 percent from beyond the arc. That didn’t slow him down in the practice gym, though.
“I had to find a way to help the team, so I was working extra hours in the gym,” Plummer said. “When you work hard and get shots a lot — every day — and you see it in the game, the results, you’re happy. You’re proud of your work and proud of what you're doing.”
If the secret wasn’t out about Plummer already — he had some monster three-point performances in two seasons at Utah — it is now. He knows his touches might get tougher moving forward.
“They’re going to give me no catches,” Plummer said. “I have to find other ways to help the team. I want to be a guy that can help on both sides and also as a point guard and playmaker.”
Plummer’s primary role, though, is set. And he’s fine with being a key piece off the bench for Illinois.
“It doesn't matter if I come from the bench or start,” Plummer said. “(The coaches) just want me to score and guard. They want me to do a role that can help the team both ways. It doesn’t matter if I start or not. I know what my role is — score threes and guard.”
Plummer could take on a more significant role in the short term depending on the status of fellow guards Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo. Neither finished Tuesday’s game against Kansas State.
Frazier suffered a left leg injury in the second half and was taken immediately to the locker room. Underwood said he didn’t have an update on Frazier’s status. Curbelo bounced in and out of the game in the second half as he contends with lingering symptoms from the concussion he suffered in Illinois’ first exhibition game.
Curbelo’s neck was giving him trouble Tuesday night in Kansas City. The back of his neck looks like he got in a fight with an octopus because of the welts raised by the cupping therapy he’s received, and he also got in-game treatment during the second half from athletic trainer Paul Schmidt.
“Dre’s been fighting all the head trauma, the concussion stuff,” Underwood said. “It’s kind of a been a game-by-game deal. … We're never going to jeopardize a young man’s health or well being. When he says no, that means no, and we get him out.”
Plummer said Underwood has emphasized a “next man up” mindset this season given the number of injuries Illinois has suffered and the three games played while Kofi Cockburn was suspended. “We've all been working at the same level,” Plummer said. “We’re working hard in practice. We go at each other hard every day. I feel like any guy can start, any guy can bring the spark form the bench or starting. If Belo or Trent can’t start the next game, I know (Austin Hutcherson), (Da’Monte Williams) and me, we’re going to step up. We've all been working hard to get any opportunity to play.”
Cockburn’s 23-point performance Tuesday night in the win against Kansas State included the 7-foot, 285-pound center hitting a stepback, fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expired. The Illinois junior has been posting videos on social media of him working on his jump shot, but the one he made against the Wildcats was the first he’s made in two games this season.
“I’m really comfortable with it,” Cockburn said about adding more jump shots to his repertoire. “I’m a basketball player. I’m not just a big guy that dunks the ball. I’m a basketball player. I've been working on my game for a really long time. It's just having the confidence to go out there, let the game come to you and not force shots. Play the game the way it's supposed to be played.”
A wiped out offseason and truncated preseason ahead of Illinois’ 2020-21 campaign meant little opportunity to work on expanding Cockburn’s offensive arsenal. That changed when Cockburn returned to campus this summer, and that work was simply an extension of what he had been doing himself as he went through the pre-draft process.
“One of the reasons we didn’t do it last year was we didn’t have an offseason to work on it,” Underwood said. “We didn’t want to put him in a situation to not be successful. Now, that’s all we’ve done. We’ve spent a lot of time on it, and he’s very confident. I’ve got no problem putting guys in situations where we’ve actually practiced.”
If Cockburn doesn’t get as much time as he’d like during Illinois’ practices to work on his jump shot, he puts in the work on his own. The Illini’s off days are anything but for the Kingston, Jamaica, native.
“I try to get in some aspect of that game every day,” Cockburn said. “At least 35-40 minutes. Sometimes it’s longer. … Whenever we have a day off, I always try to get like an hour-and-a-half in where I’m doing short rolls and jump shots to expand my game.”