CHAMPAIGN — There are still more than two months before the start of the college basketball season and just more than three weeks before practices can officially begin, but there's no shortage of competitiveness inside the Ubben Practice Facility.
The Illinois men's basketball team has been working out in small groups this summer and one of those groups includes Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller — four players who make up what is arguably one of the deepest group of guards in the country.
The workouts are focusing on skill, so it isn't necessarily two-on-two, but the competitive juices are more than present. It's also a chance for Curbelo and Miller — both of whom are highly-regarded, four-star freshmen guards — to learn from the veterans who have gone through the highs and lows of rebuilding the program to national relevance.
"We compete," Frazier said. "Those guys are competitors. I love the mentality they have right now. They ask a lot of questions already and they’re picking up things quickly."
Frazier has been embracing his role as a senior leader on the team, imparting four years of knowledge on to Curbelo and Miller to keep the upward trajectory of the program in motion. Dosunmu and Miller won a state championship together in 2018 at Chicago Morgan Park High School before Dosunmu came to Champaign and began putting the bricks of a rebuild in place.
Curbelo and Miller enter the Illini at a different moment in time and have the voices of those who have been there, done that in their ear.
"The biggest thing is veterans," head coach Brad Underwood said. "You’ve got guys who know. Ayo can tell them his experience and the things that have come, and Trent, Da’Monte (Williams), Giorgi (Bezhanishvili). Those guys are huge and we didn’t have that our first two years."
Practices can begin on Oct. 14 and things will hit a new gear, but the early reports on the freshmen have been encouraging. Installation of plays and schemes will begin with practice, which can be a daunting task, particularly for younger players.
“I always say I like ‘em but when practice starts, life starts for them," Underwood said. "They’ve been unbelievable in workouts. They’re great listeners, which is one of the things I evaluate early."
It won't be all smooth sailing at first; it never is. Growing pains on the practice floor across the country are expected and it's better to have them there than during a game in November and beyond. Miller and Curbelo certainly come to Illinois with plenty of fanfare and both were Top-50 recruits out of high school. Underwood calls Curbelo one of the best passers in the country and Miller is a scorer with a sweet shooting stroke.
“We’re excited about them," Underwood said. "Once we get to the point in practice, I call it stacking things: Offense, defense, start building on ball-screen coverages. They’ll go through some struggles — all freshmen do. It’s how they handle those struggles that determines how much success they have, especially early."
Frazier has been trying to communicate the importance of the little things during the workouts, but has been around long enough to know things are accelerated when practice begins and the season inches closer. These freshmen, he said, are equipped to handle it.
“They have to be able to learn three new plays in a day and be able to run it the next day when we’re in workouts and we’re running live," Frazier said. "They’ve very smart, their IQ, they’re really talented an they can really play some basketball. The biggest thing right now is being able to communicate with these guys and be able to help them pick up things along the way."
Illinois has a particularly deep group of guards including Austin Hutcherson and Da'Monte Williams, who both can also play on the wing or at the four position. Underwood has long talked about recruiting "winners" and players who fit the culture of what has been built in his first three years with the program.
Consider Curbelo and Miller, two of the four-person recruiting class that includes forward Coleman Hawkins and center Brandon Lieb, the next in line.
"They fit in with that same hunger and that attitude," Hutcherson said. "Adam comes to work every single day, Curbelo the same thing. Just the way they attract drills with their mentality ... they really fit in with our culture. The biggest thing is that they listen really well to instruction. When we’re putting in something new or we’re doing the drill, there’s no backup. We’re right into it and everyone kind of fits in right away."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25