Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Wildcats Deny Illini Victory

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy

December 12, 2021

The Arizona Wildcats came to Champaign undefeated on the season and having never defeated the Illini in the State Farm Center. They left undefeated at 9-0 and walked away with the program's first victory in Champaign.

This is a big, strong and athletic Wildcat squad and they featured NBA prospect Bennedict Mathurin, a 6'6" small forward who is a matchup nightmare for most opponents. He proved to be such for the Illini last night as well. The athletic wing is a challenge to guard. He has the length to make it prohibitive to have him guarded by smaller guards and he has the shooting range and quickness to make it a long evening for any bigs who try to guard him outside. He shot 10-17 from the field, with an impressive 5-8 from the 3-point line to score 30 points. He also grabbed 7 rebounds and was the biggest difference maker in the game.

Azuolas Tubelis started off hot in the first half and ended up with 16 points and 8 rebounds to play Robin to Mathurin's Batman in the first half. In the second half it was Kerr Kriisa who ended up with 19 points and 8 rebounds who supported Mathurin on the way to their come-from-behind victory.

Coach Underwood said that Hutcherson is scheduled to have surgery for a sports hernia. I am a big fan of Austin and it's frustrating, but he is going to be out for the rest of the season. This was a game that Ty Rodgers would've been fantastic to have on the roster - but that is for next year's team. For this edition of the Illini, guarding a talented 3 is tough for the Illini and they are one 6'5" to 6'7" player short when it comes to defending against a player like Mathurin. Good 3s are hard to deal with and the Illini aren't looking forward to running into another one.

Heat Checks

Heat Check #1 - Kofi Must Adjust

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Illinois Athletics

It's become very clear how the referees are going to call (or not call) fouls committed against Kofi on the offensive end of the court. If the ball is below Kofi's head, it's a no-holds-barred affair with almost no chance at getting a foul called for hacks at his arms as he's handling the ball. Once Kofi tries to shoot, you might get a foul called. If I was defending Kofi, I'd tell whoever is doubling down on Kofi from outside to go after the ball with reckless abandon because there won't be a foul called. Get the ball before Kofi can get his hands on it - or prevent him from getting his hands on it - it doesn't matter either way - and if you get arms/hands instead of the ball, don't worry about it.

Kofi needs to practice with a sixth defender on him to hack him before he gets the ball up to shoot. He has to practice getting the ball in his hands quickly and efficiently. He also has to better use his feet to get himself in a position in which he can use the drop step to get to the basket or use his foot speed to give himself a spacing advantage against his defender. It's not a fun way to practice, but it needs to be done as he won't have the time to think about what he's going to do with the ball as the guards descend upon him to hack him. They're looking for the turnover or to force an off-balance shot and they're not worried about getting a foul called on them.

There is no point in getting upset about this situation. Referees don't want to be accused of giving the Illini/Kofi too many free throws - so they will not do so. Kofi will get his 6 to 10 free throw attempts, but they're not going to give him any more than that, regardless of the number of legitimate fouls that are actually committed against him. Kofi probably should've gotten at least four more free throw attempts last night, but for the most part, the way that game was called is the way the games will be called for the rest of the season. There is a reason why the NBA may look more attractive to a powerful big man like Kofi that has nothing to do with compensation. It has everything to do with having fun and minimizing the physical punishment that is received on a nightly basis.

Heat Check #2 - Defending Talented Forwards Just Got Tougher

Austin Hutcherson has been a tantalizing player because of his physical potential. Stories of him pushing Ayo in practice two years ago, during his transfer sit out year, have been a part of Illini mythology and has created hope in Illini hearts. Last year, he sat out due to a back injury. Fans were looking forward to his contributions this year as a 6'6" athlete with an incredible wingspan and ability to jump out of the gym. Unfortunately, the injury bug has bitten him again and he'll be having surgery for a sports hernia and will be out for the rest of the season. He will be missed.

This means there are no more dreams of Hutcherson developing into a savior for the Illini at the 3/small forward position. Jacob Grandison and Da'Monte Williams will have to be able to guard the talented small forwards. This may mean that Grandison may have to guard players that are quicker than he or Da'Monte will have to guard players that he gives up 3 to 5 inches in height.

This also means that if Coleman Hawkins is struggling at the four, that Grandison might end up guarding power forwards. If this happens, there's not a lot of room for error as both players (and thus the team) will be playing small ball - with the exception of the gigantic Kofi Cockburn. Even at the guard position this season, with Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, and Andre Curbelo (currently injured), the guards are small with all three being around 6'1".

The Illini really need an Omar Payne or Luke Goode to elevate their games to be able to play backup minutes at the five or four positions. They need to be able to play more minutes on the floor. The team needs them. Kofi needs to play less than 33 minutes a night. He's a huge man and he will wear down with too many minutes played as the season progresses.

Coleman Hawkins needs to elevate his play to prevent Grandison from starting at the four and Williams from starting at the three if Hawkins is struggling. Size matters and playing an effective 6'10" Coleman Hawkins makes the Illini a much bigger team and the Illini will reap a ton of benefits at both ends of the floor. Let's hope Coleman can get back on track in the month of December.

Heat Check #3 - Trent Frazier Plays on Both Ends

Trent Frazier courtesy Illinois Athletics

Trent Frazier had an amazing offensive game going 9 for 15 from the field, 5-11 from the three-point line, and 3 for 4 from the free throw lane for 27 points with 5 steals, 4 rebounds and no turnovers. He also played excellent defense in the first half on Kerr Kriisa and then in the second half predominantly on Bennedict Mathurin. He effectively made it harder for either player to score when he guarded them. Frazier almost played the perfect game and nearly hit legendary status by winning the game with a supreme effort on both ends of the court. How long can he continue to play 38 minutes a game and not wear down?

In the end, the super senior guard has rewarded Illini fans a thousand times over for his decision to return. This team is a talented team, but without Frazier, they would be a shadow of what they are right now. His effort on the offensive end has been strong but a bit up and down. His effort on the defensive end has been Herculean. He leads by example and is one of the best defenders in the country.

Will Frazier be able to lead the team above and beyond the leading by example? Will he be able to transition to the type of team leader that can "drag" players into playing defense at a clip that will hold teams to 37% shooting (Arizona in the first half) and can he stop players from allowing other teams to get hot and shoot 59% (Arizona in the second half)? Frazier has never been an Ayo-style leader of the pack. Can he add that to his bag of tricks? It's not fair to ask that of Frazier, but the team needs a leader on the court. Let's hope Trent can be that leader.

Stay tuned.

Podcasts

IlliniMinute - 01.28.22 presented by HX Home Solutions

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IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular - Jan 21 Weekend - 1st Hour

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IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular - Jan 21 Weekend - 2nd Hour

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I on the Illini - Maryland Upsets Kofi-less Illini (S2,Ep5)

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I on the Illini - Curbelo's Return and Dainja Enrollment - What does it Mean for the Illini (S2,Ep4)

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I on the Illini - Purdue Wins a 2OT Thriller at the State Farm Center (S2,Ep3)

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Watch: #17 Illinois vs. #4 Purdue highlights

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Watch: Illini players Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk & Alfonso Plummer and head coach Brad Underwood talk after Purdue game

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Watch: Former Illini great Meyers Leonard talks about Ubben donation

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Watch: Highlights of Illini women at Penn State

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Ked's Recruiting Roundup - Illini Legend Deon Thomas

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