Early-Season Adversity Has Led To Mid-Season Confidence For Illini

By W. Elijah Smith -- IlliniGuys Contributor

December 22, 2021

“Confidence, baby, confidence!”

The immortal words of 1988 Dallas Mavericks All Star Rolando Blackman rings true for this Illinois basketball team. Entering the season, the reigning Big Ten tournament champs were supposed to be undefeated and ranked in the top 10 at this stage.  But that script was ripped up and thrown out in the preseason:

-Star sophomore Andre Curbelo, expected to have a breakout year and establish himself as one of the nation's top point guards, suffered a concussion in the opening minute of the second preseason game and has yet to play at 100% healthy.

-Super senior Trent Frazier suffered a shoulder injury in that same exhibition, ensuring that his fifth and final season in an Illini uniform will have to be played through pain.

-All-American center Kofi Cockburn sat out an NCAA-imposed three game suspension, delaying a return to the cohesiveness that this unit enjoyed last season.

-A flu bug ran rampant through the team around Thanksgiving, putting down so many players that head coach Brad Underwood had to call off practice for the first time in his coaching career.

The result was three early losses in the non-conference schedule; a gut punch to the team’s confidence. 

 “I mean there’s growing pains,” said head coach Brad Underwood after Saturday's win over St. Francis, "but along with that, I’m a really big believer in when you face adversity, you find out who you are, and you find out your character issues and your challenges.”

He then went on to say that “there are no bad shooters on this team”

And he’s right. This is an exceptional shooting team and one that has found its swagger even though the season has strayed far off its expected course. How strong is Illinois' array of shooters?  Last season, Da'Monte Williams was the best three-point shooter in the country.  This season, he's not even among the Illini's top three options from behind the arc.

Alfonso Plummer is enjoying a season for the ages, shooting 43.8% from the arc. (Courtesy Joe Clark/IlliniGuys).

Leading the confidence cavalry is Utah transfer and super senior Alfonso Plummer, who has been close to automatic from the arc and has staked his claim as the country's best three-point shooter. In just eleven games, Plummer is flirting with one of the best shooting campaigns in team history.  His 43.8% on the season from 3-point land would be 7th best ever by an Illini; his 47.9% marksmanship over the last seven games would rank 3rd best.  Four times already this season, Plummer has connected on at least half of his three-point attempts, led by his 7-of-9 effort against Kansas State on November 23rd that was one make shy of the school's single-game record.

Jacob Grandison lost his starting job while battling the flu, but has bounced back to hit an Illini personal-high four three-pointers in each of the last three games.  Trent Frazier, already one of Illinois' all-time three-point specialists, has twice hit six treys in a game this season and is shooting above his career 36% from the arc.  Add in a developing stretch-four in Coleman Hawkins and young players like Luke Goode and Brandon Podziemski getting more playing time, the Illini bench is deep with shooters. 

Jacob Grandison is in the midst of his best shooting streak as an Illini. (Courtesy Illinois Athletics)

That was on display last Saturday, when Illinois broke the team record with 18 three-pointers against St. Francis. Plummer and Grandison combined for half of those.  The Illini have been so prolific with their shooting that they are averaging ten per game and on pace to shatter the program mark for most three-pointers in a season, set back in 2005.  

The reason for their shooting success? “It’s a confidence thing,” said Grandison, “playing off each other, we draw a lot of attention inside too. We practice threes all, we’re all confident shooting it, it is what it is.” 

With Bragging Rights this week, and Big Ten play starting soon after that, the team definitely feels confident in where they stand. 

“I think we’ve been playing really well in the past couple of games despite the loss to Arizona,” said Illini All-American, Kofi Cockburn, “I think we’re heading in the right direction we’re gelling together with that aggressiveness and toughness that Brad {Underwood} wants us to play with.”

“It’s not about who we’re playing really,” said Grandison, “It’s about us and Illinois and what we’re all about.”

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