CHAMPAIGN – By the time it ended Wednesday night at the State Farm Center, Trent Frazier’s head was a ball of confusion.
He celebrated Illinois’ first Big Ten victory of the season after eight agonizing losses. His 19 points, including 13 straight at one point in the first half, were instrumental. Inside the locker room, the freshman point guard from Florida was hopping up and down, gyrating with his head and arms and doing something coach Brad Underwood described as, “some dance you’ve never seen before.”
He was also in tears, Underwood said, crying because in the final 40 seconds of the game he made nearly enough mistakes to drag another loss from the brink of victory.
He made a dangerous pass that was picked off for a turnover. He fouled Indiana’s Juwan Morgan, allowing him to get a 3-point play. He missed a shot and then, with the Illini up by two with 8.3 seconds to go, missed both free throws and in doing so put the outcome in danger.
In the same game Frazier flashed his dynamic best and his freshman worst.
Within the program, though, there exists and understanding that Frazier is that rare player who must be given room to fly and room to fail.
Underwood knows that more than anyone and he has said he’s not just marveling at what Frazier can do, he’s marveling at what Frazier is becoming.
After the game, Underwood made it clear Frazier’s rocky finish will in no way impact the confidence the coach has placed in his team’s most exciting player.
“I told Trent, ‘You understand that for the rest of your career I am going to put you in that spot,’” Underwood said. “I will put the ball in Trent’s hands for the rest of his career.”
Underwood has been trying to urge even the tiniest bits of confidence from any player who will show him some. That’s been a painful process, because the veterans on this team have no track record of success and therefore little confidence.
The other freshmen have their hands full learning college basketball and all the challenges that come with it.
Then there’s Frazier, who believes in his heart that the worst shot he could take – a contested, off-balance, questionable jumper – is still better than the best shot any teammate could take. When it’s time to bet on the outcome, Frazier will always double down on himself.
Frazier oozes confidence and his production since he started becoming comfortable in early December shows there’s a reason he believes in himself.
Frazier has scored in double figures in 11 of the last 12 games and has averaged 16.1 points during that stretch. He leads the team in assists and leads the team and is third in the Big Ten in steals.
While Edwardsville’s Mark Smith may have been Mr. Basketball in Illinois last season, Frazier was runnerup in the voting for Mr. Basketball in Florida.
While Frazier’s confidence is rock solid, Smith’s confidence is currently in rough shape.
Smith is averaging just 3.3 points in Big Ten play. His biggest problems have been shaky defense and too many fouls. Wednesday was a perfect example. He was on the bench with two fouls before the first media timeout and in the second half, Underwood went with a guard package that did not include Smith or Da’Monte Williams.
Underwood is patient when it comes to his freshmen.
“I think (Smith) is like any other freshman,” he said. “There are ups and downs. I’ve told Mark this, but the rest of the country doesn’t care that he’s Mr. Basketball. Everyone has McDonald’s All-Americans.
“Mark is going to be a really good player. He’ll be a 1,000-point scorer here and he’ll have a terrific career. But there are always growing pains and the other team has good players and the other bench has guys who can really coach. There are some adjustments.
“I liked the way he played offensively at Nebraska and Wisconsin but the problem is he’s fouling all the time. It’s hard to get in a rhythm.
“He’s a terrific young man, a terrific kid who works his tail off and good things always happen to those people.”
NOTES – Underwood liked the lineup he used to open the second half. Leron Black, Michael Finke and Frazier remained in the lineup but he moved Mark Smith and Mark Alstork to the bench and replaced them with Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas.
“We needed five guys to compete on the defensive end to start the second half,” he said. “Te’Jon was tremendous. I loved his defensive effort and it gave us a secondary ball-handler.”