3/12/2018 3:49:44 PM
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Illinois opened its season on a six-game winning streak for the first time in four years. The Illini only won eight more games the rest of the season and were knocked out in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
It was just the third time in program history that the Illini failed to extend their season into March. The last time it happened was during the 1945-46 campaign.
But Illinois" overall record of 14-18 and second-to-last finish in the Big Ten doesn"t quite tell the story of its season. The Illini lost 11 games by single digits, and if they had made a few more plays down the stretch, coach Brad Underwood"s first year would have looked a lot different.
""I think it was growth,"" Underwood said. ""I think it was challenging. You can see some of the things we"re excited about. The cliché that, `The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores," couldn"t be more true.""
Illinois lost three games in overtime and blew double-digit leads on the road against a pair of NCAA Tournament teams in Michigan and Ohio State. Underwood said inexperience caused a lot of his team"s miscues but if it was one freshman he could depend on, it was Trent Frazier.
Frazier led all Big Ten freshman in scoring, assists, steals and 3-pointers. His 12.5 points per game were the highest scoring average by an Illini freshman since Dee Brown during the 2002-03 season. Frazier was also the first Illinois freshman with at least five 20-point games since 1999.
""There was like 40 seconds left, coach Underwood pulled me to the side,"" Frazier said after the team"s final loss. ""(He) granted me with a great season, but one thing he said to me was that I need to pull these guys with me and become more of a leader.""
The Illini haven"t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and haven"t had a winning record in conference play in six years. Frazier and Leron Black, Illinois" leading scorer, flourished in Underwood"s up-tempo offense. Both will with be back next season, giving Underwood a solid foundation to help turnaround a program that has lost its way.
""There"s a lot of positives,"" Underwood said. ""But there"s no question. Finishing where we finished, when you"re the 11th ranked program in the history of college basketball, that"s not why I"m here.""
Mark Smith, 2017 Illinois Mr. Basketball and the Illini"s top-ranked recruit for the Class of 2017, is expected to transfer after one season. He scored a career-high 21 points against DePaul early in the season, but averaged just 3.1 points during conference play.
Leron Black was Illinois" most reliable player all season. He started in all but one game and averaged career highs in points, assists, blocks, free throw percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and overall field goal percentage. His 15.3 points per game ranked 11th in the Big Ten, and he knocked down 22 of 43 3s after making just 11 during his first three seasons with the Illini.
Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols showed flashes of what they could do in Underwood"s fast-paced offense. Jordan scored more points through three games than he did all of his sophomore year. He finished the season averaging 7.9 points and shooting 46.7 percent from behind the arc, which was ranked third in conference. Nichols scored in double figures in 15 games, including a career-high 31 points the Illini"s last game of the year. He was Illinois" third leading scorer at 10 points per game.
Five-star point guard Ayo Dosunmu and three-star power forward Samba Kane have committed to Illinois. Dosunmu is widely considered the best player in the state of Illinois and a top-30 prospect nationally. He is the Illini"s top-ranked recruit since Jereme Richmond in 2010. Kane, a 7-footer from Florida, will add needed size. The Illini averaged 32.9 rebounds per game - second-worst in the Big Ten - and haven"t had a 7-footer on their roster since Meyers Leonard in 2012.
More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org