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Illinois finding ways to win in Big Ten 'rock fights'

Illinois finding ways to win in Big Ten ‘rock fights’

CHAMPAIGN — The first two words out of Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s mouth to describe Friday night’s game against Michigan were “rock fight.”

It was an apt description for the majority of the game. Both teams played a physical style of defense. The Wolverines’ guard aggressively so.

And before a Trent Frazier-fueled run late in the second half to spark what ultimately became a 68-53 Illini victory, the Big Ten matchup in front of a sold out State Farm Center looked like it was going to go down to the wire.

It wasn’t all that dissimilar to No. 25 Illinois’ win earlier in the week at Nebraska. Or a significant portion of last week’s home win against Maryland.

With Big Ten play spinning up in the new year, that’s probably the type of game to expect on a regular basis. Illinois (13-3, 6-0 Big Ten) has found ways to win in those situations thus far.

“I just happened (Thursday) night because there wasn’t anything else on to watch a little bit of Iowa-Indiana,” Underwood said. “Every game is a rock fight. This league is good. It’s got good coaches. They’re going to take action away. They’re going to scheme you. We found a way to persevere (Friday).”

Illinois’ perseverance included having to toss a significant portion of its game plan when Michigan big men Hunter Dickinson and Brandon Johns Jr. were ruled out ahead of the game. Dickinson’s absence was significant. The 7-foot-2 sophomore center is both the Wolverines’ leading scorer and the player through which much of their offense is run.

The Illini were prepped to face a Dickinson-led Michigan team.

“We kind of planned on having … Hunter,” Frazier said after an aside to Kofi Cockburn for a reminder of Dickinson’s name. “We kind of planned on him and the way he would guard in ball screens. With (Moussa) Diabate coming in, they did a really good job of hedging me. It had me kind of back on my heels in the first half. I had to adjust. The second half me and Kofi talked about it. He did a really good job of screening and re-screening coming off the hard hedge.”

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The situation with Michigan and Dickinson reminded Underwood of how his coaching staff prepared last season to face Maryland with Eric Ayala on the court. Then the Terrapins’ guard didn’t play. Game plan out the window, the Illini lost 66-63 at home.

“I addressed the Maryland situation when (Ayala) was out,” Underwood said. “We were really flat and just emotionally like, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’ We didn’t have that.”

Illinois almost didn’t have it Friday night against Michigan. The Wolverines outhustled the Illini before Frazier caught fire in the second half and finished with 18 points, seven assists and three rebounds and through either scoring himself or setting up one of his teammates was responsible for 19 of the Illini’s final 21 points.


Dickinson and Johns not playing was a coach’s decision by Michigan’s Juwan Howard. Both had been cleared after testing positive for COVID-19 during the Wolverines’ program pause, but Howard wasn’t comfortable playing them Friday night given the circumstances of their return.

“Those two guys haven’t had much practice time at all being out with COVID,” Howard said, noting Johns caught it before Dickinson but had more symptoms. “I didn’t feel comfortable putting them out there in a game with no practice time because all that’s going to do is put them in a tough situation. … You never know how that situation will end up.

“It was hard. We had to figure it out. I’ve been a part of situations before in the NBA where we only had eight guys available to go in the game. Sometimes when you only have eight or seven guys you end up playing your best game because guys are so dialed in knowing we’ve got to do it for each other. That’s the type of mindset it’s been during the times we’ve all been facing this the last year.”

Dickinson’s absence created a mismatch of sorts in the post. Diabate might stand 6-11, but the freshman forward gave up at least 75 pounds to Cockburn. Michigan also tried to defend the Illinois center with walk-on Jaron Faulds (6-10, 240) and Jace Howard (6-7, 225).

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“Um, well, he’s big,” Diabate said about guarding Cockburn. “I ain’t going to lie. It is challenging, but I’m a basketball player at the end of the day and I just try to compete every day. It makes me better. My teammates did a great job, Jace and Jaron, hats off to them. They gave everything they had. I was feeding off their energy, I swear, man. I was in foul trouble early in the game, and, man, they were going crazy.”

Cockburn finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. It was his ninth straight double-double and 11th total this season. The 7-foot, 285-pound junior center now has 39 double-doubles for his career, which is the most in the NCAA since 2019-20 and two shy of tying Skip Thoren’s program record.

“Our guys were competing and fighting,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Kofi has done a really good job of becoming a finisher on that low block. Everything that he catches in the paint, he’s going to make you work. If he doesn’t make the shot, he’s really good at the second jump and getting the offensive rebound and going back up with it.”


Frazier got in a quick light moment with Juwan Howard after checking out of the game for the last time late with the win in hand. Mostly, the Illinois guard just joked with the Michigan coach about why he faced regular, one-on-one full court pressure.

“They did a good job of making me work in the first half,” Frazier said. “It was me telling him to back his guys off.”

Underwood didn’t mind the fact Michigan’s guards — typically one of DeVante Jones, Eli Brooks or Frankie Collins — picked Frazier up defensively as soon as he caught the inbounds pass. It played into what the Illini wanted to do with the ball in Frazier’s hands.

“Advantage us,” Underwood said. “If you want to go pick up Trent Frazier at the halfcourt line or pick him up full court, we’re going to screen you as high up as we can and let Trent get downhill and play into space. You saw what he did in space. He created great opportunities. Trent has become a really good layup maker. You want to pick us up at the halfcourt line, we’ll screen you there all night long.”

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Frazier nearly threw down his first career dunk in the second half Friday night, but he was fouled from behind by Jones and made two free throws instead. Frazier going up for the dunk left his teammates open-mouthed on the bench.

Cockburn was trailing the play and upset the dunk didn’t go down.

“Some plays when you’re in the play it’s hard to really realize what you could have done,” Cockburn said. “Sometimes you realize it after the fact. Me and Trent talk a lot about him driving the ball sometimes and having that ability to dunk on somebody. I always tell him, ‘Just try it one time. Try it one time.’

“I think I stopped in the middle of the court coming down and I was just in awe. I was watching him going up, and when he got fouled I was so upset because that was his opportunity to basically prove me right. He’s an incredible athlete, and people don’t realize it.”

Frazier said Friday night’s dunk attempt was both his first and his last.

“That’s the last opportunity,” he said. “I won’t be doing that again.”

Underwood isn’t all that upset Frazier will be abstaining from trying to dunk more this season.

“I want him to make it,” Underwood said. “Trent’s so freakishly athletic, but here’s where he struggles. He doesn’t have huge hands. He jumps as high as anybody on our team. Watching him dunk, we’ve seen it, but I just want him to make two points. I want him to land safely and not get hurt trying to do it.”

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