The start to the season for Illinois has been underwhelming at best. The Illini have non-conference losses to Wake Forest, UNLV, and a home loss to New Mexico State. They also dropped both of their early Big Ten meetings to Northwestern and Maryland and sit at 9-5 with one non-conference game left before re-entering Big Ten play.
The Illini’s struggles through their first 14 games of the year partially stem from the lack of production from some of their starting guards.
To start, Mark Alstork, the transfer from Wright State, has entered a scoring funk, having recorded in double figures just once in the last six games. Alstork has also scored just four points in Illinois’s last two contests against the Aggies of New Mexico State and Missouri on Saturday.
Sophomore Te’Jon Lucas has struggled even more, having scored in double figures just twice all season while also being held scoreless against the Tigers Saturday afternoon.
On the other hand, Trent Frazier has been on an absolute tear coming off of the bench for the Illini. The freshman out of Wellington, FL has been dominant from the field over his past four games while also seeing his minutes sky-rocket. Frazier has scored in double figures in each of the Illini’s last four contests and culminated in a 22 point, career high night against Missouri. In each of those games, Frazier played over 25 minutes.
The increase in Frazier’s production is a byproduct of regaining confidence in his three-point shooting. Before these last four games, where Frazier had scored in double figures, he was as cold from behind the arc as the weather has been in Champaign. The four games previous (Wake Forest, Northwestern, Maryland, Austin Peay), Frazier went a brutal 0-for-11 in three-point shooting. He was able to turn that around by drilling 10 over his hot stretch.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood has also increased his confidence in Frazier, allowing him to have the ball in his hands in crucial game situations. One of those came in the losing effort in New Mexico State. With 30 seconds remaining in the contest, Underwood drew up a play for Frazier to take a potential game-winning three-pointer.
It is tough to take guys like Alstork and Lucas out of the starting lineup. Alstork transferred to Illinois to be a difference maker from behind the arc. However, he is having his worst shooting season in his collegiate career, only shooting 24 percent on three-pointers, and is quickly becoming an offensive liability.
The Illini need Lucas’s leadership on the floor. But just as Michigan State has done with Tum Tum Nairn by moving him to the bench, the same can be said of Lucas. Lucas could provide a tempo and passing ability coming off of the bench where he could be more productive. Frazier’s offensive production is just too valuable to keep on the bench.
The Illini’s NCAA Tournament chances are not dead yet. They are not close to being an at-large lock but are also not close to being on life support either. With two away games at Minnesota and Michigan to re-open Big Ten play on deck, Illinois cant afford to come away empty and be 0-4 in the conference. Inserting Frazier into the starting lineup will give the Illini their best opportunity to win and get themselves back into NCAA Tournament consideration.