CHAMPAIGN – “Confidence comes from not always being right, but from not fearing to be wrong.”
That quote says a lot about some of the Illini basketball players who have been through one struggle or another this season.
Coach Brad Underwood has talked about confidence – or a lack of it – in general terms, noting that some players don’t make plays because they’re afraid to fail.
They don’t take shots because they fear missing.
They don’t drive to the basket because they might lose the ball along the way.
When there’s a big shot to be taken, they’re far more likely to pass the ball to someone else than risk the chance that they might be the one who launches a clunker.
Freshman Trent Frazier is still finding his way, still learning in his first season of college basketball. But when it comes to confidence, he has no shortage. He’ll take the big shot. He’ll drive into traffic. He plays with no fear in a way some players don’t show until they’re seniors.
But Frazier is an outlier on this Illini basketball team. Most players seem to struggle with confidence and have come to understand that when it comes to big moments in the game, giving the ball to Frazier is an easier solution.
Two players whose confidence has been lagging are Mark Alstork and Mark Smith, and each has a different story.
Alstork is a fifth-year graduate transfer who averaged 19 points per game last season at Wright State. When he decided to come to Illinois, it was assumed he would help carry a big portion of the scoring load. After all, he scored 20 or more points 17 times last season and three times went for 30.
But Alstork has found it more difficult to find an offensive comfort level at Illinois. In part that’s because of the tougher competition and he has often looked like a player who has lost confidence in his ability to make shots and drive the ball into the paint.
At Wright State last season, aggressively taking the ball to the basket was one of his specialties. He went to the free throw line 208 times and converted 176 of them (84.6 percent).
But this season at Illinois, that skill has been missing. In fact, until a breakout game Sunday at Ohio State, he had attempted just 10 free throws in the previous nine games.
On Sunday, Alstork scored 19 points, his career high at Illinois. He also went to the free throw line nine times, making six.
On the season, he’s averaging 6.7 points while shooting .350 from the field including .257 from 3-point range.
The good news is that Alstork has emerged as Illinois’ best on-the-ball defender. His value comes in guarding the other team’s point guard. And at 6-foot-5, he often has a size advantage over a smaller guard.
The coaching staff has not had to work on his defensive confidence. And finally they’ve told him to stop worrying about his offense. They’ve told him to “be himself” and play without worry, like he does in practice.
Underwood was pleased that he looked more confident against Ohio State.
“He got good shots,” the coach said. “He’s playing aggressive.
“Mark is our best defender. But we’ve got to get him to quit fouling and committing the fouls he’s committing, at half-court.”
As for guard Mark Smith, his crisis of confidence could be nothing more than the usual adjustment many freshmen face when they move to the college level. That’s what Underwood believes and he’s tried hard to calmly bring Smith along by varying his playing time and assignments.
The 2016-17 Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois arrived with high expectations, having been courted by the likes of Kentucky, Michigan State and Duke.
But after scoring 21 points in his third college game against DePaul, his production – and, it appears, his confidence – have fallen off.
Smith did score 17 points against UNLV on Dec. 9 and he had 11 in the Dec. 23 victory over Missouri. But those are the only double-digit scoring efforts in his last 16 games.
Where Alstork has made up for his offensive struggles with solid defense, that’s turned out to be Smith’s biggest issue. He’s had a hard time adjusting to college defense and recently Underwood lamented not being able to get him more playing time. “Because of the fouls, I just can’t keep him on the floor,” he said.
Compounding the difficulty of Smith’s adjustment is that he was the player hit hardest by a recent bout of the flu that went through the team. And last week against Rutgers, he got smacked in the face.
“In the Rutgers game he did get some playing time (16 minutes) and it was great for him to get in the flow of the game,” Underwood said. “But he took a great jolt and got smacked in the eye. We took him back to the locker room and he had blurred vision and I’m never going to put a young man out there until he has everything back and functioning.
“Mark has been so good in practice. He needs to see that transfer to the court in order for him to regain some of that confidence and swagger.
“He is still continuing to get better every day on the defensive side. I’ve been pleased with his play and his work ethic is off the charts. He’s going to be fine.”
The emergence of Kipper Nichols as a scoring option has helped put an improved Illini team on the floor. If Alstork were to become a reliable scoring threat – even 10 points a game – it would help.
As for Smith, Underwood will take anything he can get. Patience and encouragement have been used to tone down the pressure. And Underwood has indicated that a couple of made 3-pointers and some trips to the foul line would make him look like the player who was so effective at Edwardsville. That might be what’s needed to ignite his missing confidence.