CHICAGO — Just when the University of Illinois is hitting a crossroad in its season, freshman guard Trent Frazier is looking like he wants to drive this basketball team through the intersection.
Frazier’s play has taken a sharp upturn in the last four games and it comes at a time when the Illini begin playing what coach Brad Underwood termed, “big boy games.”
Gone are the games like Illinois breezed through Wednesday, when it overpowered Longwood 92-45. Beginning Saturday against New Mexico State, the Illini play games in which any opponent can prevail.
That’s why Underwood was happy to have two pieces of good news on Friday.
One, the team’s top two rebounders — Leron Black and Kipper Nichols — were back in practice after sitting out Wednesday’s game. Black was nursing an injured elbow, Nichols a sore foot. Underwood sounded hopeful he’d have both players available for the 7 p.m. contest, but said it would be a game-time decision.
Two, Frazier turned in his best practice of the season Friday after scoring 16 points against UNLV last Saturday and 20 against Longwood.
“Confidence is a wonderful thing,” Underwood said. “And he’s playing with a lot of it.”
Part of Frazier’s surge is a rediscovery of his 3-point stroke. Frazier was 2-for-3 against UNLV and 3-of-8 vs. Longwood. Another part is his work on the defensive end, where he had four steals in each game.
But most of the improvement Underwood sees has to do with what he believes is an elevated comfort level 12 games into his college career.
“You can tell when a player is starting to feel comfortable,” Underwood said. “They get lost in the game. You have to play to know what a zone like that is. Da’Monte (Williams) has been in it a long time. Mark Smith has been there the last few.
“Trent gets a whole different look about him and when he gets there he’s not reacting, he’s anticipating, dialed in. He knows when the opportunities come. He’s getting into that moment and it’s a pretty special place. And with it comes a lot of confidence.”
Underwood needs his guards to play at a high level starting Saturday because in grad transfer guard Zach Lofton, New Mexico State has a player who was honorable mention Associated Press All-American last season and who Underwood believes could be headed to the NBA.
Lofton started his career in junior college, transferred to Illinois State where he played in the 2013-14 season, transferred to Minnesota but was dismissed before he ever played a game, then transferred to Texas Southern before landing at New Mexico State as a fifth-year graduate student.
“He’s a guy who can get his own shot at any time,” Underwood said. “He’s very gifted with the basketball. He can score off the catch, from 3, off the bounce, he has a mid-range game and he gets to the rim. And he’s an 88 percent free throw shooter. He’s very difficult to guard.”
New Mexico State won 28 games and reached the NCAA Tournament last season with Paul Weir as the coach. But Weir left for New Mexico and the program is now being run by Chris Jans, who was head coach for one season at Bowling Green before being fired for violating a morals clause in his contract when the university said he acted inappropriately with women in a bar near campus.
Saturday’s game was arranged as a way to honor Lou Henson, who coached each school to the Final Four and who ranks as the coach with the most victories at each school.
But Illinois announced Friday afternoon that Henson, who is battling cancer-related health issues, would not attend after he was hospitalized early Thursday in Champaign.
Henson was scheduled to be introduced during the first half, and many of his former players and assistant coaches had said they planned to attend the game including Jimmy Collins, who played for Henson at New Mexico State and who was his longtime assistant coach at Illinois.