Trent Frazier and Brad Underwood are elite, and so are the Fighting Illini
With the luck Illinois has been having, the Fighting Illini can be pardoned for actually catching a break.
They finally caught that break at the end of Tuesday night’s 56-55 win over No. 10 Michigan State, which created a virtual tie atop the Big Ten standings. Though it certainly didn’t look like a break at first.
Holding a 2-point lead, the Illini fouled Michigan State’s Malik Hall with 0.2 seconds left. And when he stepped to the line, it was just the latest outrageously tough break for Illinois in a week full of them.
Each dribble at the line was worthy of a flashback moment for Illinois fans.
For the first time since November, Brad Underwood’s team had its full lineup available last Monday against Purdue when guard Andre Curbelo returned from an elongated absence caused by a concussion. That lineup lasted barely a game.
All-America center Kofi Cockburn was riddled with foul trouble in the double-overtime loss to the Boilermakers. In the few minutes Cockburn did play, he managed to suffer a concussion of his own. Cockburn has yet to return in the 2 games since.
Curbelo, dealing with flu symptoms, played just 14 minutes in a disappointing loss at Maryland on Friday night. Like Cockburn, he was also out of the lineup against Michigan State.
You couldn’t ask for a worse set of breaks.
The No. 10 team in the country was in town, but the Illini were without their two best players. With a loss, Illinois would fall 2 games behind Michigan State in the Big Ten title race. And if you think the Big Ten regular-season championship isn’t that important, you don’t know Illinois fans.
The Illini haven’t won the crown since 2005’s magical run. They believed the title was rightfully theirs last year, but the Big Ten ruled otherwise. Michigan had 3 games canceled due to COVID, and with a 14-3 league record the Wolverines had a superior winning percentage (.876) to Illinois’ 16-4 mark (.800).
Michigan got the banner.
In response, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman essentially threw a fit in writing. That chip has been pushing the Illini ever since.
So even though it didn’t have Curbelo and Cockburn against Michigan State, Illinois did have the chip. And it helped them dominate the majority of the game.
But the offense went missing down the stretch, going the final 5:32 of the game without scoring a point. That drought included Trent Frazier missing the front end of a 1-and-1 that would have put the game out of reach with 4 seconds to go.
Instead, Michigan State received a miracle with 0.2 seconds left, and surely the thought in Champaign was that the Illini were about to drop an overtime thriller against a top-10 opponent for the second straight home game.
But Hall missed his first free throw. And with the Spartans’ only remaining hope to tip in a second miss, he accidentally drained the second.
For the first time in a week, fortune favored the Illini. And there are two primary reasons that was the case: Frazier and Underwood.
Underwood shows why he’s one of B1G’s best
Tom Izzo is the undisputed top dog in the Big Ten coaching fraternity. There’s nothing left for him to prove, perhaps outside of whether it’s possible for a coach to win national championships two decades apart.
The debate is over who is the best of the rest among Big Ten coaches.
Purdue’s Matt Painter probably gets the most love in that regard thanks to his longevity and success. But Underwood is building a case that he should be held in similar regard, and Tuesday night’s win was a perfect example of why.
#Spartan head coach Tom Izzo on Brad Underwood: "I think Brad is a hell of a coach, he out-coached me tonight."
— The Schmack Guy (@Ant_Pasquale3) January 26, 2022
Without Illinois’ top two scoring threats available, he devised a game plan that worked against a typically hard-nosed Michigan State defense.
It wasn’t an overly complicated plan. Underwood simply understood his point guard can be trusted to put more on his plate than is typically asked.
Underrated Frazier a key to Illinois’ success
In the stacked Big Ten, Frazier isn’t a lock to make second team all-conference. But without him, Illinois isn’t a contender for the conference championship.
Frazier is a classic example of how we parse language in handing out awards, and how that makes us look at players from different vantage points.
At the Final Four, for example, the top player is known as Most Outstanding Player. In most other sports, they award a Most Valuable Player. And even if you don’t list Frazier as one of the 5-10 most “outstanding” players in the Big Ten, he certainly belongs in that range when you talk about guys who add the most value to their team.
Some guys are the pulse. If they aren’t beating, everything around them fails. Frazier showed he is Illinois’ pulse against Michigan State, setting the tone early with 10 first-half points. Illinois was missing a couple limbs, but it still had its heartbeat.
In a strange way, it might have been harder for the Illini to win this game if they were missing Frazier instead of Curbelo and Cockburn. Like in the NCAA tournament, these are the moments where veteran point guards prove their salt.
And for that reason, the banged-up Illini should be the Big Ten’s team to beat the rest of the way if they can actually get their preferred lineup on the floor.
This team is talented, hungry, and well-coached. The only thing that seems capable of tripping up the Illini is bad luck.
Illinois fans may want to cross their fingers and hope that kind of luck will stop sticking out its foot. But after pulling this one out, perhaps Illinois’ horse shoe is pointing the right direction again.