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The Illini are hitting their stride

Illini stars Dosunmu and Cockburn stole the show against Wisconsin, but strong performances from Frazier and Grandison have fueled this run.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The early season hopes for Illini basketball fans seem to be coming to fruition at the right time.

Illinois has reeled off a slate of impressive wins, including Iowa, at Indiana, and now Wisconsin. Jacob Grandison and Trent Frazier have been particularly key for the Illini. Grandison finished with a double-double against the Hawkeyes and has brought a welcome infusion of energy on defense, getting extra possessions and closing out defensive stands for the Illini. Frazier’s recent performances have been outstanding, finishing with 24 against the Hawkeyes and following that up with two big threes at the end of regulation to power the Illini offense down the stretch against the Hoosiers.

The Illini have battled adversity, with Ayo Dosunmu fouling out against Indiana while having an off night offensively, and found ways to win with these other key contributors making winning plays.

But it all was capped off by Dosunmu on Saturday, as he was able to bounce back and finish with a historic triple-double (21 points, 12 assists, 12 rebounds) against a typically stout Wisconsin Badgers defense. Combined with Kofi Cockburn’s huge game (23 points, 14 rebounds), the Illini cruised to an impressive double-digit victory over the Badgers.

Let’s see what’s been clicking for the Illini.

Keys to the Game

Offensively, the Illini were able to play their game and speed up a Wisconsin team that often finds success slowing teams down to their methodical, half-court pace. They played great complementary team basketball, finishing with 16 assists on 28 baskets. Defensively, they closed out possessions with strong contests and closeouts, with strong rebounding nights from Dosunmu, Cockburn, and Da’Monte Williams.

Defensive rebounding from Dosunmu and Cockburn in particular (21 combined) powered the Illini’s strong defensive night, as the Badgers struggled shooting from the field (4-24 from 3, 42% overall) and were only able to corral two offensive rebounds on their misses. For a Wisconsin team that’s built on possession minimization, this is a good recipe for success.

The size advantage was also evident, and the Illini looked to Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Cockburn early and often, forcing Wisconsin forward Nate Reuvers into foul trouble early in the second half. This inside advantage enabled them to win the foul (10 team fouls vs. 16 for Wisconsin) and free throw battles (21 attempts to only 11 for Wisconsin).

If the Illini continue to play with this pace and exploit matchups as they did in this one, their postseason ceiling will continue to climb.

Areas for Improvement

The Illini struggled with turnovers once again in this one, finishing with 18. Fortunately, the Badgers didn’t fully capitalize on these and committed turnovers of their own (11, above their season average).

Normally a steady playmaker, turnover issues from Andre Curbelo (4 in only 8 minutes) minimized his impact in this one. He needs to continue improving his decision making and temper his aggressiveness defensively to ensure that he can continue having an impact for the Illini.

Frazier cooled off in this one (8 points, 1-7 from 3), and he will need to be better — as he was against Iowa and Indiana — for the Illini to continue having success.

Looking Ahead

With covid issues impacting Michigan, the highly anticipated matchup on Thursday will be delayed, and the Illini will have a 10-day break until their next contest against Northwestern in Champaign on Feb. 16.

While not ideal for a team playing well, the Illini can use as an opportunity to get in extra practice and improve upon some of their recurring struggles, like the turnovers that have been biting them all too often.

If the Illini continue to compete defensively at a high level and play their fast-paced, inside-out style, they will stay right at the top with Michigan, competing for their first regular season Big Ten title since 2005.