Big Ten head coaches praise Illinois men’s basketball fifth-year seniors Frazier, Williams


Cameron Krasucki

Guard Trent Frazier defends against an Indiana opponent during the Big Ten Tournament on Friday. Coaches from across Big Ten acknowledge and admire the skills of seniors Frazier and Da’Monte Williams.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

Fifth-year senior guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have been in Champaign through it all: from the lows of a program-worst 21 losses during the 2018-2019 season to the highs of winning Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Despite not receiving national attention at the same level as junior center Kofi Cockburn or former guard Ayo Dosunmu, Big Ten coaches have recognized the fifth-year seniors’ legacies and importance on this Illini program. The pair constantly is tasked with guarding the opposition’s best scorers, and they have contained some of the nation’s top talent.

Frazier is averaging 12.1 points per game, his highest mark since his sophomore season, along with 4.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds, both of which are career bests.

Though Williams’ numbers are not as flashy — 4.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and a career-high 2.6 assists — as Frazier’s, he is the team’s “glue guy” and makes contributions on both ends of the court that will not appear on the stats sheet.

Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg praised Frazier following Illinois’ 81-71 win in Lincoln on Jan. 11, a contest in which the Illini trailed by three at halftime before winning by 10. The Florida native scored a game-high 29 points on 50% shooting, while he also grabbed four steals and dished out five assists.

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Frazier and Williams were tasked with guarding the Cornhuskers’ top two scorers in freshman guard Bryce McGowens and senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. Though both players finished with double-digit points, they went a combined 11-28 from the field and recorded 33 points, 10 of which came from the free-throw line.

“Trent Frazier has been one of the best guards in this league for a long time,” Hoiberg said after the game. “They put the ball in his hands, ran that little dive action to the pick-and-roll and trusted that he’d make the right play. He did for the most part, hit the big three late — the step-back three to put it out of reach — and got himself to the free-throw line there at the end and knocked down his free throws. 

“That’s who that kid has been his whole career. He was unbelievable there down the stretch.”

On Jan. 17, Illinois welcomed Purdue to the State Farm Center for a battle between two Big Ten powerhouses. 

Sophomore Andre Curbelo made his long-awaited return and scored 20 points, but junior center Kofi Cockburn struggled against the Boilermakers’ talented big men, scoring a season-low 10 points and fouling out in the Illini’s 96-88 double-overtime loss.

Frazier, who scored 16 points in the defeat, and Williams mainly defended First-Team All-Big Ten and Second-Team All-America sophomore guard Jaden Ivey and senior guard Sasha Stefanovic.

While Stefanovic finished with 22 points and hit five 3-pointers, Ivey went 3-10 from the field and missed his only 3-point attempt. 13 of his 19 points came from the free-throw line.

“Trent Frazier, man, he’s a good player. He makes it hard. He makes it really, really hard,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter postgame on Jan. 17. “He’s played college basketball for a long time. He should know, but he knows everything that’s going on. We run more plays than the Cowboys, and he knows everything that’s going on out there. It’s pretty impressive. I think he’s got a bright future.”

While Frazier provides a threat on the offensive end with his 3-point shooting and ball distribution, his defense makes him a “good two-way player,” Painter says.

“He just knows what’s going on. He knows everything,” Painter said. “Kind of a savant in that way. Just knows play calls, knows the little things.”

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo made sure to praise both Frazier and Williams after Illinois’ 56-55 win over the Spartans in Champaign on Jan. 25. The Illini played with Curbelo and Cockburn, but they were able to pull out the narrow one-point victory.

The Illini held the visiting Spartans to a season-low 55 points, while Michigan State freshman Max Christie went 1-8 from the field and finished the night with two points. An Illinois native, Christie was heckled by the Orange Krush throughout the contest, though Frazier did not give him any space and forced him to settle for contested shots.

“I’ve liked Trent Frazier since he was a freshman,” Izzo said after the game. “He is a competitive SOB. He comes at you, seems to be classy … I probably did a decent job on him, but he does a decent job defensively for a guy who’s not real big. I think he plays hard as hell, and he plays physical and he gets after it, so I’m a big fan of his, too. I love their guys.”

Williams was tasked with guarding 6-foot-8-inch senior forward Gabe Brown, who stands five inches taller than the Illini guard. Despite the height difference, Brown only scored 10 points on 4-9 shooting.

“I think another guy that gets no credit is Williams,” Izzo said. “I love him. He just does what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t do anything abnormal … He just makes little plays, he’s in the right spot, he’ll make a pass. Has absolutely no ego. 

“They’re lucky; with all those shooters and the guys that take a lot of shots, that kid, without him, I’m not sure it’d be as easy for Brad because then you’d got everybody wanting to take shots, and he just kinda fits in, just does his thing, guards really well … We all said they ain’t taking him off much because they need him in there.”

The two sides met again on Feb. 19 in East Lansing, Michigan. Though Michigan State was able to get its offense flowing a bit more than the first matchup, Illinois pulled out a 79-74 win.

Christie once again had an off night. Despite averaging 9.4 points, the second-highest mark on the Spartans, he registered six points on 3-9 shooting, while junior guard Tyson Walker scored a season-high and team-best 26 points off the bench.

After scoring a game-high 16 points in their first meeting, Frazier registered 12 in the second contest. Despite going 3-9 from the field and 2-7 from behind the 3-point line, his second trey iced the game after the Spartans almost completed a comeback after trailing by as many as 16 with nine minutes to play.

“Frazier might be my favorite player in the league,” Izzo said after the game on Feb. 19. “Fifth-year guy that started the process, understood the process, went through losing, getting his butt kicked. He just came back, came back, came back. Decided to give it another run when nobody thought he would. 

“He was the best player on the floor. Not Kofi. Frazier. He did it on the offensive end. He did it on the defensive end. Played hard, and he made a big shot when it mattered. He didn’t do much second half, and in winning time, he made plays.”

Fellow Big Ten regular-season champion Wisconsin was yet another victim of the defensive duo of Frazier and Williams.

In the lone meeting between the Illini and the Badgers in Champaign on Feb. 2, Illinois pulled out a dominant 80-67 win to move into sole possession of first place in the conference. Cockburn scored a game-high 37 points on 16-19 shooting, dominating the paint on both ends.

Frazier and Williams each scored seven points, and they combined to go 4-17 from the field and 2-11 on 3-point attempts. But their defense made up for it.

You would not be able to tell from an initial glance at the box score, but the pair contained Big Ten Player of the Year and First-Team All-American Johnny Davis.

Davis scored 22 points, but he went 5-19 from the field and made a single 3-pointer on five attempts, and he was guarded by either Williams and Frazier throughout the night. 

“I’ve always thought he’s been a terrific defender,” said Badger head coach Greg Gard after the game. “Trent’s a good player. He always has been. He’s competitive; he battles. He doesn’t shoot it exceptionally well tonight, but he can impact the game. Seven assists and one turnover. Good players find ways to impact the game and help their team in ways other than just scoring, and Trent’s one of those guys.”

In Illinois’ 86-83 loss to Ohio State on Feb. 24, one of the Illini’s three home losses this season, freshman guard Malaki Branham, who went on to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and junior forward E.J. Liddell, who earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors after the season, combined to score 52 points. 

The Buckeyes’ other three starters — graduate student guard Jamari Wheeler, sophomore guard Eugene Brown III and sophomore forward Zed Key — combined for five points and went 1-8 from the field.

Frazier scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half as the Illini stormed back from a 16-point deficit with six minutes to play after head coach Brad Underwood was ejected. Though they came up just short, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann pointed out Frazier’s play-making abilities as a big factor behind the comeback.

“He impacts winning at such a high level,” Holtmann said after the game. “You’re looking for guys that impact winning. He competes defensively, he’ll guard the best player, he fights on every possession, he never panics, he makes big shots, he makes the right play more times than not and he’s older. But he’s been a good player since he came in the league. 

“I just gotta lot of respect for the kid, and I think he doesn’t get enough notoriety nationally.”



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