CHAMPAIGN – Trent Frazier held the ball 35 feet from the basket Thursday and sized up the Wisconsin defense.
He passed it to Mark Smith, who quickly passed it back. Then Frazier passed it to Michael Finke, who wasted no time passing it back. It was almost as though Frazier was inviting his teammates to take a shot and his teammates were quickly declining the invitation.
They had more faith in him doing the shooting.
A few more seconds ticked off the clock before Frazier went to work, juking right, bobbing left, then freezing a defender with a crossover dribble and launching a deep 3-pointer.
The State Farm Center crowd went wild. The Orange Krush cheering second lost their minds. Three-quarters of the way through his freshman year, Trent Frazier already owns the State Farm Center crowd.
But over on the Illini bench, delighted to have the three points, coach Brad Underwood hated that he was endorsing Frazier’s one-man show as his brand of offense.
Truthfully, it’s not.
“I’m not a big fan of that, honestly, just having Trent go one on one,” Underwood said after a 78-69 loss to Wisconsin, a game in which Frazier scored a career-high 32 points that included seven 3-pointers.
“That’s too much like the pro game. But sometimes it’s our best option. The inside is just so congested and until we start making shots, I have to ride the hot hand. I don’t like running offense like we did tonight but that’s what we were relegated to.”
No one needs to overthink Thursday’s loss or any of the losses that might occur in Illinois’ remaining six regular-season games and the Big Ten Tournament.
After watching this group for 25 games, the painful truth is that Illinois isn’t very talented at this point and knowing it makes it hard for veteran players to generate any semblance of confidence.
Just look at shooting statistics alone, because after Thursday’s loss Underwood lamented his team’s inability to simply make shots.
Frazier and Leron Black combined to make 16 of 32 shots Thursday. The rest of the team hit on 5 of 23.
In Big Ten play, Mark Smith is shooting 29 percent overall and 19 percent from 3-point distance.
Michael Finke, who Underwood called an elite shooter earlier in the season and whose ability to shoot 3s could really help this team, is also making 19 percent of his 3s in Big Ten play.
Want to know why Da’Monte Williams got just one minute of playing time Thursday? Because Wisconsin was packing its defense inside, which only left openings for shooters who could hit from the perimeter. And in Big Ten play, Williams is making less than 7 percent of his 3s.
That leaves Underwood in a difficult position because there’s really just one way to fix the problem.
“In the long term, recruiting,” he said. “The game is about making shots. Every place I’ve been we won because we made shots and did it from multiple spots.
“I’ve tried avoiding (making it an issue). I’ve tried not putting pressure on them. But at some point you have to jump up and make shots. We shot air balls on layups tonight.
“Goodness, you have to make shots. It’s the object of the game. And sometimes it’s frustrating when you get guys open and it doesn’t happen.”
The simple explanation is that Illinois has to get bigger and better and it’s probably unreasonable to believe that veteran players who have struggled throughout their careers will just suddenly change.
Underwood believes Mark Smith will have a much better sophomore season. He believes the addition of Chicago Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu will bring another much-needed weapon into the mix. He sees the rest of his freshmen, including Frazier, growing in the off-season.
But Underwood and his staff would ease the fears of the Illini fan base if they’d get another couple recruiting commitments. Make it a big man and a gifted shooting guard with size.
The program has an electric freshman in Frazier, who is averaging just a tick under 20 points over the last eight games. Think how much better he would be with more help and moving forward, unless help arrives, teams will swarm to get the ball out of Frazier’s hands.
Underwood knows people are frustrated and he feels the same way.
“We took a step back tonight,” he said after the latest loss. “Our fans have been great. I hope they won’t give up on us. This is a process. And until we get there, nights like tonight happen.”