Black’s injury push freshmen into spotlight


Austin Yattoni

Illinois guard Mark Smith (13) drives to the basket during the game against North Carolina Central at State Farm Center on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

Head coach Brad Underwood was forced to depend on a core of several young players due to the absence of junior Leron Black in the second half against UNLV on Saturday.

However, it would seem that this trend will only continue, especially considering that Illinois is nearly two months into the regular season. The team has suffered heartbreaking defeats against the likes of Wake Forest in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a Big Ten foes Northwestern and Maryland in record-early conference play.

Black spent the duration of Saturday’s second half with his right arm in a sling after suffering a hyperextended elbow injury. He did not practice Monday, and he is still awaiting the future test results of an X-ray and MRI.

“Leron’s injury is not something we foresee as a long-term injury,” Underwood said.

Black has averaged 13.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game this season.

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Fellow junior forward Michael Finke provides the only other true upperclassman presence on the floor with Black’s absence. Finke is averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

Junior forward Cameron Liss and senior guard Clayton Jones are the only other upperclassman on the roster. The walk-on players have scored a combined 10 career points for Illinois, and Jones is inactive for the foreseeable future.

It is unclear whether Jones will have the opportunity to dress again for the program because of a torn ACL during summer workouts, and he hopes for the NCAA to grant him a sixth year of eligibility next season.

The 6-foot-6 forward is the next-tallest Illini after freshman forwards, Matic Vesel and Greg Eboigbodin.

Vesel and Eboigbodin are listed at 6-foot-10, 215 pounds, and 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, respectively.

Underwood has played Eboigbodin sparingly, although he has already played some competitive minutes when other post players have encountered foul trouble.

Eboigbodin played 10 minutes against UNLV, and he scored his only points on an alley-oop dunk.

Underwood recognized that Eboigbodin will likely play additional minutes; however, he needs to learn how to play without getting in foul trouble himself.

“He’s got to learn to play without as much reckless abandonment,” Underwood said.

Freshmen Trent Frazier, Mark Smith and Da’Monte Williams showed flashes of the group’s collective potential against UNLV. The freshmen combined for 43 of the 82 points in Las Vegas, and the last freshman group to outscore that total came on a 52-point outburst in 2002 from Dee Brown, Deron Williams, James Augustine, Aaron Spears and Kyle Wilson.

“I thought it was a breakout night for our freshmen,” Underwood said. “I was really proud to see those guys get to a place in the game where they were mentally submerged.”

Frazier getting a feel for college basketball

Eboigbodin’s dormmate, Frazier, ignited the Illini offense from the point guard position, and he scored a career-high 16 points, 12 of which came in the first half, in addition to recording a team-high four steals.

Underwood praised Frazier’s performance in practice after the Dec. 13 overtime loss to Maryland after he recorded a team-high seven assists.

“Trent played today like he’s been practicing, and it’s almost been scary good how dominant he’s been in practice,” Underwood said.

Frazier utilizes his speed and ball-handling ability to create opportunities near the basket, and he is shooting 62.5 percent on shots within the 3-point arc (20-32).

Smith looks to regain offensive production

The reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball award recipient demonstrated an elite finishing ability around the rim during the early nonconference slate. However, he has struggled offensively over the last five games, against the likes of Austin Peay, Maryland, Northwestern, Wake Forest and N.C. Central. In recent outings, opposing defenses have challenged him to shoot it from a distance.

Early in the season, he scored in double figures in four consecutive games, which previously hadn’t been accomplished by a freshman at Illinois since Kendrick Nunn in 2014.

Smith is looking to rebound from a slow shooting performance. He shot four of 28 from three-point range to start the first 10 games of the season, but he has been efficient at the free-throw line with a mark of 85 percent.

Underwood said that Smith and his freshman teammates were “in-tune” with the game, and he referenced a particular sequence in which Smith came to the bench with a specific play call in mind to attack the UNLV defense.

Smith slightly improved his three-point shooting percentage due to a four-of-five shooting performance on Saturday, and several of his looks were a few feet beyond the perimeter. He scored 17 points and dished out four assists on Saturday, and his 17 points matched his point total from the previous five games combined.

Williams making name for himself

The often-overlooked third guard from Underwood’s first recruiting class at Illinois has provided a steady presence for the Illini, while also demonstrating an advanced feel for the game, despite sitting out the majority of his senior year at Peoria Manual and through summer workouts with an ACL injury.

Williams started in place of Smith against Austin Peay on Dec. 6, and it was the only tweak Illinois has made to the usual starting lineup of sophomore Te’Jon Lucas, Smith, senior Mark Alstork, Black and Finke through the first 11 games. Despite returning to the bench, Williams contributed a career-high eight points Saturday night.

“Da’Monte Williams is one of the best listeners for a freshman that I’ve been around in a long time,” Underwood said most recently after the 72-68 overtime loss to Northwestern.

Underwood has complimented Williams’ basketball knowledge, “it factor” and exceptional listening ability on numerous other occasions.

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