Changed role leaves Frazier in key position

Trent+Frazier+runs+past+his+defensive+opponents+during+the+Big+Ten+Tournament+matchup+against+Rutgers+on+Friday+at+Lucas+Oil+Stadium.+Frazier+has+grown+to+play+both+sides+of+the+ball+which+has+helped+the+Fighting+Illini+become+a+highly+successful+Big+Ten+team.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsea Ansfield/Fighting Illini Athletics

Trent Frazier runs past his defensive opponents during the Big Ten Tournament matchup against Rutgers on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Frazier has grown to play both sides of the ball which has helped the Fighting Illini become a highly successful Big Ten team.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

Down with four seconds left against a young Luka Garza-led Iowa team, the struggling Illinois, losers of four straight conference games, needed to make a three-point shot to force overtime. But the Illini couldn’t count on Ayo Dosumnu. He was busy playing for Morgan Park. Brad Underwood had freshman Trent Frazier leading Illinois in the scoring department.

Even though the Illini ended up falling to the Hawkeyes in overtime, Frazier did make that shot. As a freshman, the Florida native had the responsibility of leading a program devastated by the John Groce era, and he did the best he could, leading the Illini with 12.5 points per game on the season.

To the casual, current Illini basketball fan who prepares to watch them participate in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, Frazier being “the guy” may seem surreal after watching Dosunmu guide the Illini to prosperity. But in a way, it’s a testament to Frazier’s ability to adapt and benefit an Illini team that needs him for a Final Four run.

“I’ve learned throughout my years here, it’s not all about scoring,” Frazier said. “I’ve decided to grow (defensively) and play both sides of the ball.”

Frazier’s transition from leading scorer to a defensive prowler has correlated with Illini becoming a Big Ten — and now national title —contender. With players like Dosunmu, Cockburn and Curbelo on the roster, Frazier doesn’t need to take that shot against Iowa to win the game.

When Frazier came to Illinois in 2017, it was a program that needed a fresh start. With John Groce at the helm, the Illini were NIT regulars, as they regularly were doomed with late-season collapses. In what turned out to be Groce’s final regular-season game, last-place Rutgers stunned Illinois, ending their tournament hopes.

Athletic Director Josh Whitman had a vision for his program, and he didn’t care if it needed to be unorthodox to achieve it. Whitman flew down to Stillwater, Oklahoma and lured a first-year Power Five coach away.

However, as Illini fans know, the Underwood saga wasn’t anything but smooth at first, Fraizer having a front-row seat the entire way. Back-to-back losing seasons cast doubts whether the Illini program would ever turn around, but signs of improvement were showing.

While the Illini were one of the Big Ten most improved teams last season — going from 12 to 21 wins — Frazier’s role as a primary scorer officially vanished. Frazier’s point per game average dropped 4.6 points, and his ability to shoot the outside shot plummeted, converting only 30% of his attempts.

Meanwhile, Dosunmu was paving his way as an Illini legend, hitting multiple game-winning or clinching shots that locked up a would-be NCAA tournament bid, if not for COVID-19.

When Frazier was a freshman, he was the guy, but Dosunmu took that role from him. The all-defensive guard doesn’t mind the new role he’s taken on and appreciates Dosunmu’s impact on the program.

“He loves having the ball in his hands and (hitting) that big shot,” Frazier said. “We need a guy like that, and he’s been great for this team.”

Dosunmu has the chance to become the face of college basketball this March, with his swagger, black mask and game-clinching shots in his arsenal. But while Dosunmu has all but secured his number being put up in the State Farm Center rafters, he is human, and his teammates have proved Illinois is more than No. 11.

Facing a bubble-bound Indiana squad earlier this year, Dosunmu had an off-night, eventually fouling out. Instead of packing up the bags and accepting the upset loss, Frazier went off for 19 points, including a stretch of making three-straight 3 pointers to hold off Archie Miller’s team.

“We’re almost shocked when Trent misses one now because he’s been on such a burner,” Underwood told the Herald & Review after the game.

While Frazier isn’t a prolific scorer, he has proven that he is able to step up his game and allow the team to count on him.

On top of his shooting improving back to freshman form, the Illini have one of the most diverse and balanced scoring attacks in the nation. As Frazier says, basketball is more than scoring, and he’s become one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation.

“The coaches tell me to guard the best player,” Frazier said.

Frazier’s impact, although changed, can’t be overstated. His contribution to the program is about to pay off with the first Illini tournament berth since 2013, even without being able to hang a Big Ten championship banner. As for Frazier and the Illini, who haven’t even reached the Sweet 16 since 2005, they have bigger fish to fry.

“That was the regular season. It’s postseason now,” Frazier said. “We’re focused on the national championship. You know, bigger things.”

 

@gourdiereport

[email protected]