CHAMPAIGN — Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin offered a little insight into his team’s defensive plan following the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois exactly one month ago in St. Louis.
Trent Frazier without the ball in his hands was significantly easier to defend — and shut down — than when the Illini junior was initiating the offense.
Missouri threw its big guards at Frazier on the wing, he scored just five points and the Tigers won 63-56 at the Enterprise Center on Dec. 21.
Whether that particular game served as the onus or not, Illinois coach Brad Underwood has tweaked his offense around Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu in the new year.
Frazier runs the show early. Dosunmu operates as closer.
The Illini (13-5, 5-2 Big Ten) have won four straight games and moved to No. 21 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 on Monday in advance of Tuesday’s 6 p.m. showdown with Purdue (10-8, 3-4) at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.
“There’s an unbelievable push that he has and thrust because of his speed when he’s got the ball,” Underwood said of Frazier. “Teams guard him different in ball screens than they guard (Andres Feliz) and Ayo in a lot of cases.
“Teams fear Trent stopping behind it and shooting it. Now his comfort — six games in a row without a turnover — he’s doing a great job of getting us into actions and getting us into our sets and getting us into our plays. He was instrumental in our zone offense (Saturday) in making the right calls and making the right plays.”
Underwood called it a “work in progress” finding the best combination of Dosunmu and Frazier when it comes to “point guard” duties. Part of that was moving away from starting all three point guards. Underwood shifted Feliz back to his role as sixth man (or one of what’s essentially three sixth men with Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols) after the Illini lost 81-79 to Miami at home on Dec. 2.
That Underwood has found a consistent eight-man rotation where all of them recognize what their role is has aided in developing this particularly effective dynamic between Dosunmu and Frazier.
Movement and spacing without the ball has made a difference, too.
“Ayo’s elite speed getting out and running the wing has gotten him going,” Underwood said. “He comes off a lot of actions without the ball where he’s moving, and that plays to his strength as well. ... We try to put those guys in different actions and different spaces.
“They can still be just as effective without the ball because we’re going to put them in different positions to do that. It’s been a little bit of a process — there’s no doubt — but we’re very effective in our transition and initial thrust because guys get out and run and all those guys do that. It’s something we’ve been refining, I guess is the right word, all year long.”
Dosunmu and Frazier both recognize that this new dynamic is working.
Frazier, coming off 16 points in Saturday’s win 75-71 home win against Northwestern that pushed him past the 1,000-point mark in his Illini career, pushing the ball in transition with Dosunmu as an outlet has been successful. So has Dosunmu getting looks in the halfcourt offense with Frazier at the helm.
The opposite — especially late in games — has also worked. Frazier was open for one of three key late three-pointers in the Illini’s 71-70 win at Wisconsin on Jan. 8 because of what Dosunmu did attacking the basket earlier in the game against the Badgers.
That both Dosunmu and Frazier are comfortable with or without the ball in their hands doesn’t hurt.
“Me playing off the ball really doesn’t matter because of the way our offense runs,” Dosunmu said. “It always gets me to that spot where I’m either going to pick-and-roll or not. I can show how versatile I am, I guess, me being a natural point guard and playing off the ball and still succeeding. Growing up I always played both positions.”
So did Frazier.
He also knows it’s working.
“It’s something the coach wants,” he said, “and I’ve got to adjust to it and figure out how I can help the team and do what I do.”