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Illini hoops at a daunting crossroads? Brad Underwood — betting on a key alum — says no

Former Illini point guard Chester Frazier was brought in as an assistant to help run the recruiting show after Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman both left for Kentucky.

Chester Frazier in his Illini playing days.
Chester Frazier in his Illini playing days.
Robert K. O’Daniell, AP

One of the first moves Bruce Weber made in 2012 after being fired by Illinois and taking the head coaching position at Kansas State three weeks later was to call Chester Frazier, his former Illini point guard, and offer him a job.

Then 25 and playing pro ball in Germany, Frazier said yes and dove straight into the deep end as a first-time assistant.

Fast-forward eight years, and Frazier is the veteran hand that Illini coach Brad Underwood decided he needed to keep the program on solid ground after the departures of star players Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn and star recruiters Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman. The latter pair left last week for Kentucky.

“I’ll be shocked in three years if Chester is not a head coach someplace,” Underwood said Tuesday.

Until then, he’ll have to prove he can cut it in a different sort of recruiting pool.

At Kansas State, Frazier helped Weber find tough kids whose talent wasn’t so obvious that Kansas and other “it” programs swooped in and got involved. At Virginia Tech after that, Frazier looked for interchangeable parts who could play off the ball in a motion offense. Both the Wildcats and the Hokies tried to keep the pace down and the scores low.

The Illini? Different ballgame, folks.

“High-octane, transition, score in the first seven seconds, guards that are fun to watch,” said Frazier, calling it an easier, “sexier” sell to players, which it certainly is.

Think guards like Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo. Coleman led the way on the former and Antigua on the latter. Underwood is counting on Frazier to reel in his own versions.

Meanwhile, this is the most transition Underwood has ever dealt with in an offseason when he wasn’t on the move himself. His best players, gone. His best coaches, gone. The Illini are at a daunting crossroads.

“It’s the way the world’s going to be when you get good,” Underwood said, also citing the effects of the transfer portal, which cost the Illini guard Adam Miller. “You’d better have pros, or you’re not getting good. I don’t think it’s a crossroads. I just think it’s the new norm.”

But Illinois winning a Big Ten tournament title and getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament isn’t the norm. That was all shiny and new. What will be harder for Underwood: getting the Ilini to that level or keeping them there?

“The climb’s hard,” he said. “We’re going to find out.”

Chicago Blackhawks Victory Parade And Rally
Foley’s late-game comment in the finale was a strange way to end things.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

JUST SAYIN’

NBC Sports Chicago’s telecast of the Blackhawks’ season finale Monday took a dark, unfortunate twist near the end of the third period as longtime play-by-play man Pat Foley was complimenting team personnel for navigating through difficult travel conditions during a pandemic.

“Had I been traveling with the team this year,” Foley told viewers, “I might have put a bullet in my head.”

Metaphorical, but still insensitive and jarring. And a shame because Foley had just finished calling out the Hawks for their porous defense throughout a non-playoff season, and that was a fair and valid point. It was refreshing to hear needed criticism put so bluntly by a local announcer. We don’t need pom-pom waving, after all.

Foley apologized for the “bullet” comment a few minutes before the Stars scored in overtime for a 5-4 victory.

“I wish I didn’t say that,” he said. “I’m sorry if I offended some folks, which apparently I did. So I apologize.”

A strange way to end the season.

• The hottest team heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs? It’s not close. Coach Joel Quenneville’s Panthers have won six straight and 10 of their last 12 and overwhelmed the defending champion Lightning 5-1 and 4-0 in the last two games of the regular season. Good luck dealing with all that.

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks
Westbrook is triple-double waiting to happen. Playoff success is another story.
Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images

• Did you catch what Wizards guard Russell Westbrook said Monday night after his 182nd career triple-double, which broke Oscar Robertson’s record?

“My motto is, ‘Why not?’ That’s how I live, and that’s how I think. Each and every time I step on the floor, I try to do things that people said I can’t do.”

Translation: “Stick that in your ear, Kevin Durant.”

•  Don’t know if we’ve seen the last of Albert Pujols, who was of no use to Angels skipper Joe Maddon and — being in his 40s with 667 home runs, fifth all-time — perhaps should put a bow on it and call it a career.

But it would be wonderful theater to see him in a Cardinals uniform again, even if it’s just in a pinch-hitting role. Come on, baseball gods, make it happen.

• We can’t let May 12 go by without acknowledging the anniversary — No. 51 — of Ernie Banks’ 500th home run, hit off the Braves’ Pat Jarvis at Wrigley Field in 1970. It’s always fun to note that Billy Williams later homered to tie that game in the ninth inning, and Ron Santo won it with a base hit in the 11th. It should be known as the Hall of Fame Game.

It’s also the 66th anniversary of Cubs pitcher Sam “Toothpick” Jones’ no-hitter against the Pirates at Wrigley. Jones was the first African-American to accomplish this feat in an MLB game. A side note: With the score 4-0, he walked the first three batters of the ninth inning before striking out the side. Nowadays, not even Tony La Russa would leave him in to finish that one.