Miller, Illini guards plan to continue winning culture

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Photo Courtesy of Gary Middendorf / Daily Southtow / Chicago Tribune

Adam Miller makes his way to the basket against Simeon on Jan. 23. Miller is Mr. Basketball of Illinois for 2020.

By Gabby Hajduk, Sports Editor

In three short years, head coach Brad Underwood has transformed Illinois back into a legitimate option for top-100 recruits. From Ayo Dosunmu to Kofi Cockburn to now Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, Underwood and his staff have quickly garnered potential pro-level talent. 

Part of recent recruiting success, especially in Chicago, can be traced back to Dosunmu’s decision to take a chance on Underwood and the Illini in 2017. 

“Ayo believed in us when it wasn’t the sexy thing, and we weren’t winning and we were building this,” Underwood said in a Zoom press conference. “Yet, it’s never not been our vision, our plan to have the best players from the state, the best players from the city of Chicago and the ones that fit. Adam comes along, and I don’t get into all the rankings, I just know he’s ranked really, really high, and he’s a really good player and is a guy that fits everything we do. He’s going to be an integral piece of us continuing to climb the mountain.”

It’s easy to compare Dosunmu and Miller, as they are both top-ranked guards out of Morgan Park High School who chose to stay and attend their in-state school. However, they’re each on their own journey, as Dosunmu pursues the NBA and Miller pursues a March Madness run. 

Underwood has also focused on the differences in their playing styles and abilities, as Miller will join the Illini as an “extremely athletic young man with a terrific body.”

“He (Miller) has the ability to not only play the point, but he has the ability to shoot it as well as anybody in the country,” Underwood said. “He does that with deep, deep range. He’s got a game that is high IQ, very, very willing and unselfish passer. You add that component with the two other young men we signed in the fall and we’re really excited about the IQ and the feel that this group has as basketball players.”

Illinois’ top-15 2020 class also includes four-star point guard Andre Curbelo and three-star forward Coleman Hawkins. 

Curbelo, an ESPN Top 100 player and No. 10 point guard in his class, averaged 16.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.6 rebounds in his senior season at Long Island Lutheran. He was also named a Third-Team All-American selection by MaxPreps. 

Miller and Curbelo have already started to develop a relationship after both played in the Beach Ball Classic in December. At that point, Curbelo had already signed his NLI and Miller had committed to Illinois. Underwood believes their relationship has been building and will quickly translate to an elite backcourt duo. 

“You’re talking about two guys who have the ability to make others around them really, really good,” Underwood said. “They’re both very good passers. They’re both capable scorers at a high level. … There’s a lot of excitement from my standpoint about the thought of those two developing an unbelievable chemistry with each other in the backcourt.”

While Miller and Curbelo will be the highly-anticipated players to watch, they join an experienced guard group consisting of rising senior Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams along with rising junior transfer Austin Hutcherson. 

Underwood said he will always be a coach who wants a guard-heavy roster, citing that as a top reason why the Illini were set to make a run in March Madness this season. The Illini will have that depth again, creating the ability for Underwood to be flexible with lineups.

“Every one of them is different, they’re not like pieces,” Underwood said. “You throw Austin (Hutcherson) in that mix, and you’ve got a 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 perimeter guy, extreme athleticism. You’ve got experience and leadership of Da’Monte Williams and Trent (Frazier). Both of those two have turned into elite defenders, have a wealth of knowledge and can help tutor those young guys.”

Both Williams and Frazier were highly-valued on the defensive end this season and while that is typical for Williams, Frazier had been used to making his impact on the offensive end. Frazier had an off year when it came to shooting, as he shot 32.7% from the field this season after shooting 41.1% during his sophomore campaign.

“I do believe he was the elite perimeter defender in our league,” Underwood said. “You start talking to other guards in this league, and they didn’t like Trent Frazier guarding them. He’s so assignment-sound on the defensive side, and I think he went six games without a turnover. His understanding of what we were doing is very, very high.”

Adding both transfers, Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison, to the mix, Underwood feels extremely confident in his team’s offensive capabilities. Hutcherson will add elite shooting and athleticism, much like Miller. While Grandison is more relied on for elite cutting and passing, Underwood adds his jump shot has improved tremendously with the sit-out season.

All four new guards — Miller, Curbelo, Hutcherson and Grandison — will all see valuable and possible starter minutes in the upcoming season for Underwood and the Illini.

“When you look on the court, it gives us an opportunity to play small, it gives us an opportunity to play four guards and have tremendous passing, athleticism,” Underwood said. ” … We have so much versatility. We’ve spent a lot of time studying a lot of different things offensively that I’m excited about. You can see us play a lot of different lineups as we did this year.”

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