Notes, player grades: Illinois men’s basketball hangs on to complete season sweep over Michigan State


Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Graduate student forward Jacob Grandison follows through after attempting a shot during No. 12 Illinois’ 79-74 win over No. 19 at Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan, on Saturday. Grandison recorded a season-high 24 points and 6 triples earning him an “A+” grade.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

In what turned out to be a wild game, Illinois was able to hang on thanks to a late three by Trent Frazier to beat the Spartans, 79-74, on Saturday.

Frazier stepped up late, but it was Kofi Cockburn (27 points) and Jacob Grandison (24 points) who were able to keep Illinois in front the whole game. Michigan State guard Tyson Walker came off the bench to score 26 points, 24 in the second half, to keep his team in it. But Illinois prevailed.

Grandison shot 6-10 from three, a season-high for the senior, while Kofi dominated down low. Frazier hit the big shot, but the Illini don’t win this game without the dominance of Cockburn and Grandison playing the best game of his life. 

Illinois gave up 52 second-half points, largely due to Walker going crazy, but Brad Underwood and crew didn’t adjust properly. Still, the Illini hung on to win at the Breslin Center for the first time since 2015. 

Trading slumps

Jacob Grandison was awesome today. After not shooting the ball well for the majority of the calendar year, Grandison stepped up, hit big threes and was able to score inside a couple of times, too. 

But as one slump seemingly ends, another begins. I’m looking at you, Alfonso Plummer. 

Plummer was shut out from three for the second game in a row, which is the first time that’s happened all season. After he started the year shooting lights out, teams have adjusted to his 3-point threat, and Plummer hasn’t had an answer.

Credit to Grandison for stepping up when other Illini were cold from three. For Plummer, you’d rather him slump now than in March, but he’s going to have to find a way to adjust to tougher defenders.

Kofi down the stretch

When Illinois and Michigan State were trading off buckets down the stretch, the Illini turned to Kofi Cockburn to score. And he delivered. 

The National Player of the Year candidate finished the game with 27 points, seven of which came all in a row with 5:28 to go in the game as the Spartans were rolling. I wrote a column last week about how Illinois didn’t have a guy to turn to when the other team was on a run, but Kofi stepped up to keep Illinois ahead when it mattered.

I credit Kofi in that he doesn’t take days off against teams without elite big men. Kofi recognized his advantage, made some in-game adjustments and ended up dominating on offense.

Let’s get into grades.

Jacob Grandison: A+

I don’t hand out many of these, but Grandison earned his A+ on Saturday. Grandison hit five threes in the first half, but even after Tom Izzo and the Spartans adjusted, he had seven more points in the second half by scoring inside and hitting a transition three.

On top of the points, Grandison had five rebounds and five assists, really doing it all to help his team earn a road win in a tough environment.

As I said before, this was the game of Grandison’s life. It’s great to see him get out of his shooting slump, and if he stays hot into March, he will give his team a much better chance to advance far in the tournament.

Kofi Cockburn: A

As I wrote before, Kofi came up huge. He got as close as you can get to an A+ without getting one, because I wasn’t too pleased with his defense on the perimeter and at the top of they key, but it didn’t cost his team the game.

On top of his 27 points, Kofi finished with nine rebounds, an assist and a steal, and he shot an impressive 7-9 from the free-throw line. When Kofi is making his free throws, he’s really dangerous offensively.

Despite the defense still needing work, Kofi played his heart out in a tough environment against some big men that aren’t too shabby. I’m very happy with how he stepped up late to help Illinois stay in front.

Trent Frazier: A-

Despite not being very efficient from the field, Trent does so much more than hit threes. He held Spartan guard Max Christie to six points, dished out five assists, executed a tough transition layup late and hit all four of his free-throw attempts.

His huge 3-pointer with 0:25 left in the game was the dagger and was a career highlight for the fifth-year senior.

Trent was cold almost the whole game but still had the confidence to take the big shot. And he made it. What game for the captain, who is so important on both ends of the floor.

Coleman Hawkins: B+

How about Coleman Hawkins. The sophomore is now in a role he may not have wanted or expected earlier this season, but he is executing it very nicely.

He only had two points, but what he did defensively was awesome. He helped hold Spartan forward Gabe Brown to only five points, and he picked up some big rebounds and a block. His hustle plays are exactly what Brad Underwood’s been looking for. 

The offensive game needs a lot of work — he’s not very aggressive, and he fouls a tad too much — but he’s doing everything else right. He had a nice step-back in the first half and should build on that to become a more complete player for next season.

Da’Monte Williams: C-

I can’t give Williams too low of a grade, because his on-ball defense is so good, but there were a few things I really didn’t like.

He gave up too many offensive rebounds, couldn’t hit a wide-open three when he had the chance and was unable to find a way to score inside or out. He had two points on 1-4 shooting.

The on-ball defense will almost always be there, which I will always compliment. I just really hoped Da’Monte could hit a wide-open shot when he needed to, but he’s also slumping from beyond the arc right now. 

Andre Curbelo: D+

Curbelo impacted the game positively late by scoring on a tough floater and hitting one of two free throws. He als0 had two assists and two rebounds on the day while only playing 13 minutes.

But there was a lot more that wasn’t as good. He missed both of his threes, fouled four times and was covering Walker late in the middle of his monster run. Being undersized does not help Curbelo.

He only had one turnover, which is better, and Brad trusted him to be in the game late. Curbelo’s inability to shoot and his bad defense look worse when he isn’t dishing out more assists.

RJ Melendez: D+

He only played nine minutes, but Underwood still wanted to give him a shot on the floor. He just wasn’t great. 

He was unable to hit a shot, turned the ball over twice and didn’t have an assist. But, he had some good defensive possessions and grabbed a couple boards.

I’m glad he’s earned Brad’s trust to be on the floor in a big game, but it just wasn’t RJ’s day. No problem there moving forward. 

Alfonso Plummer: D+

Plummer is really slumping offensively, as I wrote before. However, he did have eight points by hitting two free throws and scoring inside and on a couple jumpers.

What I really didn’t like is how bad Plummer was on defense. He got beat twice and picked up fouls, wasn’t moving that well through screens and couldn’t play late because of it. Like Curbelo, being undersized isn’t doing Plummer any favors, but he doesn’t adjust well.

The bad defense, combined with not hitting threes, does not make a great combination for a guy that’s supposed to give so much offensively. If he gets out of his slump in March, he could be one of the reasons Illinois makes a deep tournament run.

Final note

Good win for Illinois. I really don’t like how Michigan State scored 52 points in the second half after just 22 in the first. The Spartans hit tough shots, but Illinois didn’t adjust properly on Walker and Kofi’s defense outside the paint wasn’t good.

But, we saw a huge game out of Grandison, Kofi dominated on offense and Trent hit a huge shot to seal the deal for Illinois.

It would have been better to win by double digits, since the first 30-35 minutes was so good, and I’m looking at Underwood and crew for the lack of adjustments with Cockburn and Curbelo on defense.

Still, Illinois was able to win in a tough arena while some key shooters didn’t play well. There’s some concern moving forward, but it’s still a good win nonetheless. 


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