Illini Basketball: Who is the Team’s Third Piece?


And for the first time since 2010, Illini basketball will finish with a winning record in conference play. Illinois stomped Northwestern tonight 74-66, in a game in where they displayed a form that was far from their best (but plenty enough). A bonafide league title contender up until a couple weeks ago, they still have a really nice NCAA Tournament profile that resembles a #7 to #8 seed. For where this program has been in recent years, it’s a very welcome development and a nice surprise.

They also have a true big two in Ayo Dosnumu and Kofi Cockburn. The dynamic duo certainly have some NBA Draft stock, and may comprise the league’s best inside-outside combination. Ayo is the closer, and the team’s true alpha dog, but Cockburn isn’t far behind, and he can carry this team for long stretches, just like Dosunmu can. But who is the Illini third piece?

Good teams always have a Batman and Robin. Elite teams always have a big three. Think back to when the Chicago Bulls dynasty ended, and they slipped into irrelevance. When Michael Jordan left for his “baseball sabbatical” (can’t use heavy enough air quotes on that phrase), the Scottie Pippen led team still won 57 games and took the New York Knicks to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was when the Bulls no longer had a Horace Grant, or a Dennis Rodman or anyone on par with them that they fell off the map. That’s what keeps this Illini basketball team from being really special this season. It’s always good to have excellent basketball shoes which can protect you from injury, like the shoes you’ll find at While they won comfortably in the end against Nebraska, it was a game that was too close for comfort much of the way. At least too close when you consider the opposition.

“We kind of lose that competitive edge,” Illini basketball coach Brad Underwood said afterward. “We were back on our heels. We weren’t that ultra-aggressive team.”

One would have anticipated that Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who was arguably the team’s second or third best player last season, would have been the guy that completes the Illini basketball triumvirate. However, the forward has suffered a major sophomore slump, and now finds himself benched.

The couple of easy bunnies that he missed in the first half at Northwestern tonight certainly did help things. So who will step up and truly complete the “big three?” Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Here are three Illini basketball players that are leading candidates to play that role down the stretch and into the postseason.

Trent Frazier

Arguably the best player on a really really bad 2017-18 team, it’s only natural that one could expect him to potentially flourish in this role. And he is third on the team in assists and second in three point field goal percentage. Although it’s also worth noting that Giorgi is third on the team in 3pt%, even despite his down year.

Yes, it’s the weakness of this team for sure- three point shooting. While Frazier can still bring it on a given night, and he gives you an important basket here and there, he’s just endured so many long rough patches this season and his season cumulative numbers convey that.

Alan Griffin

A 40% three point shooter, he’s the best perimeter player, and as you know, it’s something they could really use right now. However, there is a reason you don’t see him in a larger role and that was on display at Purdue. Griffin still has some growing up to do, before you can honestly consider the sophomore in a leadership role on this team.

That said, he produces when he’s on the court and his efficiency should translate to more opportunities and shots. You saw tonight what he can do with said opportunities. His alley-oop tonight absolutely tore the roof off the place, and then it initiated the Illini run that sealed the game.

In fact, tonight may have just been “the Alan Griffin game.”

Said Underwood: “I think when you make six threes in a game it gets everyone’s attention, now you can start game planning offensively around that.”

Andres Feliz

Third on the team in scoring, rebounding, steals and field goal percentage, he’s the safe answer to this question, at least for now. It may not be long until Griffin becomes that guy however.

“That’s what we look for to be a team, to not be a two person team, to have that piece is comforting,” Underwood said after the game, pointing out how Griffin became the fifth different player to score 20 or more in a game this season.

brad underwood

“Alan is becoming a really good Big Ten college basketball player,” he added while pointing out the strides that Griffin has made on the defensive end of the floor.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC and Chicago on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link

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