CHAMPAIGN – Until Tuesday night, the Illini basketball team had not enjoyed a laugher since Dec. 13 when it clobbered Longwood by 47 points.
But with former Illini great Deron Williams sitting courtside, Illinois cackled from start to finish, stampeding past Rutgers 91-60.
Maybe having a member of Illinois’ 2005 Final Four team was an inspiration. If so, James Augustine should be the guest at the next home game, followed by Luther Head, Roger Powell and Dee Brown.
Illini freshman Trent Frazier, who said he was fired up to play in front of Williams, gave the 12-season NBA veteran a first-half show to remember. Frazier hit five 3-pointers in a span of 3:46 minutes to ignite the Illini breakaway.
During his brief campus visit, Williams attended an Illini practice, addressed the team, visited with coach Brad Underwood and AD Josh Whitman. Underwood said the players were in awe of the four-time NBA All-Star and Frazier listened closely to his message. “He just talked about hard work, trusting the process and grinding,” Frazier said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out now.”
Winning its second straight Big Ten game, Illinois (12-11, 2-8) did it with a defense that forced 25 turnovers and an offense that made 11 of 27 3-pointers.
Underwood, excited that Illinois has forced 68 turnovers in the last three games, thought his team was especially dialed in defensively.
“That’s exciting for me because we’re taking people out of what they do,” Underwood said. “Over 40 minutes it’s exhausting to play against us when we pressure like that. We made it tough for them tonight.”
If the blowout victory can’t be credited to Deron Williams, maybe Illinois cruised because of Underwood’s change to the starting lineup.
Kipper Nichols, who has now scored in double figures in three straight games, moved into the starting lineup for the first time this season and responded with 19 points and a team-high six rebounds.
Frazier added 17 points, Leron Black 14, Mark Alstork 12 and Michael Finke 11.
Nichols has averaged 19.3 points the last three games.
“Coach has talked about coming out and fighting whether it’s in practice or in games and that’s my approach – honing in on the scouting reports, things of that nature,” Nichols said.
“The game is a lot mental and that’s been part of my maturation as a player.”
Underwood credits Nichols for pushing himself to get better.
“Kipper works awfully hard and I’m excited to see him rewarded for that,” Underwood said. “We all know Kipper can make baskets and grab rebounds but when he does the other things his game goes to another level. Tonight he took a charge.
“He gives us another dimension and he opens the court for other guys. He’s a good free throw shooter and you have to respect him on his drives. And he’s the ultimate mismatch. You can do a lot of things with him based on matchups.”
Illinois led 15-12 when Frazier went on a tear. He started with a 3 from the corner on an assist from Nichols. Then he buried another to open a 21-12 lead.
After Frazier assisted on a fast break basket to Alstork, Frazier hit another 3-pointer that beat the expiring shot clock to make it 26-12.
His fourth 3-pointer rattled around and bounced in and because he was hot, he couldn’t resist trying a contested 3 and he fell to the floor as it swished through to extend the Illini lead to 32-14.
Illinois led by 19 at the half but because Illinois has blown leads this year, playing hard to open the second half was the only message talked about at halftime.
The message worked because it took Illinois just 2:19 minutes of the second half to go on a 12-2 run and push the lead to 53-24. That run included 3-pointers by Finke and Black. Illinois’ biggest lead was 43 points – 82-39.
Geo Baker led Rutgers (12-12, 2-9) with 19 points. Deshawn Freeman and Corey Sanders added 10 each.
Illinois will meet as a team Wednesday, have Thursday off, then practice Friday and Saturday in preparation for its Super Bowl Sunday game at 17th-ranked Ohio State. That one tips off at 11 a.m.