CHAMPAIGN — Trent Frazier made a defensive adjustment in one of Illinois’ first official practices of the season that had coach Brad Underwood asking the super-senior guard to ease up just a bit.
Did Frazier make the right move?
Was it part of the basic defensive work Underwood had his team going through?
“Those veterans, you know that you can push the envelope a little bit in practice,” Underwood said. “You can move ahead. They’ve got it down pat. Yet, there’s a patience that goes with having five new guys to even learn terminology and the simplicity of the things we do that are very basic. We’ll never skimp on those things.
“This group of new guys has done a great job. We’re a few practices in, and they’re closing the gap quickly because of their film study. They’re working and doing all the things they need to do to get up to speed.”
Role identification was at the heart of Illinois’ success during the 2020-21 season. It came from the top down. Ayo Dosunmu was going to be a key focal point, and the rest of the rotation worked itself out around the First Team All-American guard.
Figuring out those roles now is one of the Illini’s challenges heading into the 2021-22 season. Transfers Alfonso Plummer and Omar Payne will factor into the rotation. Freshmen Luke Goode, Brandin Podziemski and R.J. Melendez might.
But even though several experienced players return, it won’t be a straightforward move into role identification.
“It’s a lot more scrimmage,” Underwood said. “Last year, our role identification became tremendous. Now, I think it’s about making sure we’ve got a sample size — enough scrimmages, enough opportunities — to see how guys work together. We’re playing two exhibition games under the lights to see how people react. Getting guys back with fans. I think all of that encompasses it. That’s putting the pieces of the puzzle together that I like to do. We’ve got five new faces and some guys that will be in a different role.”
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Andre Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn represented Illinois this week at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. Both appreciated the opportunity. Neither considered being the faces of the program their priority.
“It means we’re doing something right,” Cockburn said. “I don’t really try to worry about it too much. I feel like you let your game speak for itself. If we’re not winning, we’re not getting that much love. We’re not getting that appreciation. At the end of the day, we have to make sure we get the job done. We have to prioritize that — getting the job done and getting better every day and making sure we live up to expectations.”
Curbelo said his priority is having a positive influence on his teammates.
“All I want to hear from them is, ‘I want to be here to play with him. I want to come back next year. I just want to play with him,’” Curbelo said. “That’s what it’s about at the end of the day. It’s not about being the face of the program or winning or losing. For me, it’s how I can impact my teammates’ lives on and off the court.”
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One of the points of growth for Curbelo this season is his three-point shooting. The 6-foot-1 guard shot just 16.1 percent from beyond the arc last season. That’s five makes in 31 attempts, including a stretch between late December and late February where he missed all 15 of his three-point shots.
“He’s a guy that’s not a bad shooter,” Underwood said. “They were good shots. They just didn’t go in. I think Dre tried a little too hard last year, pressed a little bit when he was in the games. He’s worked extremely hard on it and has great form. He’ll be a guy that’s going to be a very, very good shooter for us.”
Even when shots weren’t falling, Curbelo contributed. His ability to help his teammates succeed is something Cockburn said continues to make a difference.
“Andre elevates us with his playmaking and his energy and his uniqueness,” Cockburn said. “He’s a unique player if you watch him. His court vision is incredible. He gets guys to trust him. He just builds that bond with us. He elevates guys and makes guys know, ‘This is what I do. I want to pass the ball to you. I want you to score. I want to see you succeed.’”
Curbelo’s presence on the court might have the sophomore point guard in line to take over Dosunmu’s role as Illinois’ closer.
Underwood said that role is “to be determined,” but pointed to what Curbelo did in the Illini’s overtime win at Indiana when Dosunmu fouled out and again in the Big Ten tournament as a reason the Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, native could be the Illini’s closer this upcoming season.
“Belo did it in a different fashion,” Underwood said. “He did it with the pass and made two elite passes (against Indiana). I think that Curbelo very easily could have been the MVP of the Big Ten tournament. He was a guy that hit big shots down the stretch in the semis and the final.
“I’ve got a feeling he’s going to have ample opportunities to have the ball in his hands. I think he’s got a really good supporting cast around him. He’ll just do it differently than Ayo did.”
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Injuries have affected Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk in each of his first two seasons in Champaign.
The Lommel, Belgium, native played in nine games as a true freshman in 2019-20 before he was sidelined the final 19 games with a foot injury. A preseason injury ahead of the 2020-21 season meant the rotation had been set before the 6-8, 235-pound forward got a chance to prove what he could do on the court.
Bosmans-Verdonk is healthy now, and Underwood has been pleased with his effort in practice the last week-plus.
“He’s got great physique and a great competitive spirit,” Underwood said of the redshirt sophomore. “Nobody works harder than Ben. It’s nice for us to lay eyes on him on consecutive days and let him stack days. My goodness, that young man has been through a lot with all the stress fractures, but he’s extremely competitive, and he’s making a ton of progress. He’s that guy that tries to grab every rebound. He fights and competes as hard as anybody.”