It’s no coincidence that No. 25 Illinois is off to its best Big Ten start since 2005, with three upperclassmen logging the most minutes.
The Fighting Illini have won their first five conference games behind seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams and junior Kofi Cockburn.
Each will be key again on Friday night when the Illini host Michigan in Champaign, Ill.
“For the most part, you don’t win big games with freshmen,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You win with veterans who don’t panic. We’ve got a couple of those and they continue to do that for us.”
After a 2-2 start, Illinois (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) has won 10 of its past 11 games with Cockburn (22 points, 12.5 rebounds per game) and Frazier (12.8 points, 3.1 assists) leading the way. The program also has gotten a big boost from another upperclassman, Utah graduate transfer Alfonso Plummer, who is averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting a sterling 97.7 percent from the free throw line.
Cockburn scored a combined 52 points in Illinois’ first two games of the month, a road victory over Minnesota and a home win over Maryland. Cockburn was held to 16 points by Nebraska on Tuesday, but Frazier filled the offensive void with 29 points along with five assists in Illinois’ 81-71 triumph.
“I keep running out of superlatives, adjectives,” Underwood said of Frazier.
Illinois trailed at halftime but outscored the Cornhuskers 50-37 in the second half. In the Fighting Illini’s case, familiarity has bred success.
“We’re not a one-and-done program,” Underwood said. “That’s not us. We’re a development program. I tell our freshmen all the time how blessed they are to be around those veterans. That keeps your culture building and running.”
Junior Omar Payne only played 10 minutes but he made them count, contributing eight points, five rebounds and four blocks.
“To step up and impact the game like he did was huge,” Underwood said.
Michigan (7-6, 1-2) is the only unranked opponent remaining on the Illini’s home schedule this month. The other visitors will include No. 7 Purdue, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 13 Wisconsin.
Whether the game on Friday will go on as scheduled is a big question mark. COVID-19 issues within the Wolverines program forced them to postpone home games against the Spartans and Boilermakers in the past week.
It’s a frustrating situation for a team trying to find its footing.
“They want to play, but health obviously comes first, and safety is a part of that as well,” head coach Juwan Howard said during a radio interview. “We will continue to get work in the gym for those who are able to participate.”
Michigan hasn’t recorded a victory since Dec. 18, when it thumped Southern Utah by 37 points. Since then, it has experienced three postponements and two losses. The Wolverines were defeated by Central Florida 85-71 and fell to Rutgers 75-67 on Jan. 4 in the only contest they’ve played this month.
“This is something that we’re all dealing with,” Howard said. “There are some teams out there that had to shut down similar to what we’re doing now. You hate it when it’s you, but that’s a part of it.”
Frazier notched 22 points to lead Illinois to a 76-53 victory in the Illini’s only meeting with Michigan last season. The two sides are scheduled to meet again this season on Feb. 27 in Ann Arbor, Mich.
–Field Level Media