The Sophomores. Somehow there are only two left.
Tent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are the only players left from Brad Underwood’s first class, and both players committed and signed while John Groce was still the head man. All of the Underwood signees have left the program. Mark Smith transferred to Mizzou, Greg Eboigbodin transferred to Northeastern, and Matic Vesel is... well... no one exactly knows whatever happened to Matic, but he’s no longer on scholarship at Illinois.
There are always going to be transfers, but ideally, you want to retain 80% — not 40% — of your recruiting class. It will be crucial for Underwood to retain and develop the current freshman class.
Thankfully for Illini fans, the two guys who stayed have a chance to develop into really special talents.
He’s only been here one season, but I feel like Trent doesn’t need much of an introduction. After one season he has become the face of Illinois basketball. Frazier brought a jolt of electricity to the lineup as a freshman and instantly became the fan favorite.
Frazier earned All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors after averaging 12.5 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Those marks left him as the second leading scorer and second leading assist man on last year’s team. He also led the team in minutes played, 3-point makes and attempts, steals and turnovers — all as a true freshman.
The Florida native was asked to carry the load offensively for the Illini once conference season began. So while his shooting numbers don’t appear the most efficient, it’s important to remember he was asked to take almost every high-leverage shot. Frazier shot 40% from the field, 35% from three and 64% from the line. The free throw percentage has to be much better, hopefully up near 75-80%. His FG% should also improve with a deeper backcourt and more high percentage looks.
The next step for Frazier is finishing inside the arc. The ability to hit floaters over bigger guards and wings and absorb contact from bigs at the rim will allow him to become a truly elite college scorer.
Expectations: Frazier has to be the star on this team. He did it last year as a true freshman, so he certainly has the confidence and personality to carry that load, but the team needs even more this year. Frazier will probably play 30 minutes per game and will need to lead this team in scoring and average at least 16-17 points per game. Keeping his assists (3 per game) and steals (2 per game) at a similar level while shrinking his number, ideally closer to one per contest, will be a great step.
Frazier will still have the ball in his hands a ton, but Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu are very capable ballhandlers who will be able to initiate offense and make plays for others. It won’t all be on Frazier’s shoulders this season. Frazier will play a little more off-guard on offense and will have to become a consistent catch-and-shoot guy in addition to his already impressive shooting ability off-the-dribble.
On defense, Frazier just needs to keep playing with the same energy he did last year. Williams, Frazier and Feliz are all above-average defenders with good size, which will allow Frazier to guard the other team’s worst player and save some energy for the offensive end.
Da’Monte Williams is everyone’s pick to have a breakout season. And the ingredients are there.
Williams was coming off an ACL injury sustained during his senior year at Peoria Manual. We saw glimpses of his athleticism, but he never put it all together. Williams also was hampered by a nagging hamstring over the course of last season. Underwood mentioned that he will be wearing a brace on that leg as a preventative measure to avoid further injury to the knee or hamstring.
With a full summer in the weight room, in the gym, and putting up shots, fans are hopeful that they can see what a healthy Williams can do. Williams played a limited role on last year’s team, scoring only 3 points a night on 33% shooting (22% from three). He also added three rebounds and two assists per game in his freshman season.
While he didn’t light up the box score, DMW did a lot of the little things extremely well. His basketball IQ is extremely high, he has great vision and great instincts and was usually in the right place at the right time. Fans will point to a few mishap turnovers early in conference play that occurred at the end of games to counter that assertion, but I would argue that evidence is strictly anecdotal. He made a few freshman mistakes in pressure situations. It happens. But he understood the offense and where the cutters were going to be. He understood defensive assignments and rarely looked lost on that end of the court.
The advanced stats back that up. Williams was second on the team in Defensive Box Plus-Minus — think of it like WAR in baseball — at +2.9, behind only Eboigbodin. He had a rebounding rate of 10.4% — the best of any player under 6-foot-6 — and was the only player on the team with a rebounding rate and assist rate greater than 10%.
At 6-foot-3, Williams has a very diverse skill set and a great nose for the ball. He needs to become more aggressive this year and let his confidence match his abilities.
Expectations: I think there’s a good chance Williams starts plenty of games at small forward this year next to Ayo and Trent in a three-guard set. Due to Illinois’ lack of size, and Williams’ impressive wingspan at 6-foot-3, he is going to be asked to play up a position a lot this year. The reason I think Williams can start right away is because of his defense. I think Da’Monte is going to be this team’s best defender and will often be asked to guard the opposing team’s best player. His mixture of IQ, length and athleticism is going to give him the chance to become an All-Big Ten defender at some point in his career.
The combination of Williams and Dosunmu will give opposing backcourts a headache and free up Frazier to apply extra pressure on the passing lanes.
The real test for Williams is on the offensive end. His shooting needs to improve, luckily there’s nowhere to go but up. He doesn’t need to be a top four scorer on this team, he just can’t be a liability. His slash line last season was 33%/22%/70%, if he can improve that to 43%/33%/75% he is going to make a huge sophomore leap and it will be nearly impossible for Underwood to keep him off the floor. A great Da’Monte Williams stat line for the year would be 8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 3PM and lockdown defense for 25 minutes every single night.
The broadcast teams need to be referring to Williams as the Illini’s X-Factor. Stay healthy, and take that sophomore leap, Da’Monte.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!