Mar 07, 2019

Unexpected guest post! A senior reached out to me today (as in student, not octogenarian) with some words he had written about Aaron Jordan. As someone who fully understands "not sure why I wrote this - I guess I just needed to get the words out", I asked if I could publish the words he sent me (as a free post, of course). He said yes. So here's Harrison on Aaron Jordan:

What is college basketball?

If you only watch SportsCenter, you would think it is the Harlem Globetrotters (Duke) versus the Washington Generals (anyone playing Duke). Even if you have never watch a second of college basketball, you would know the Zion Williamsons and the Ja Morants of the world. I get it, sex sells… and their games are as close as it gets on a basketball court. The fact of the matter is there are at most 14 lottery picks playing Division One College basketball; 14 out of a maximum 4602 scholarship athletes in the country. Does college basketball really boil down to this minute .3% of those playing it?

I'll answer my own question: no.

Then who is college basketball? Aaron Jordan.

In November of 2014 a consensus sub-100 recruit signed his National Letter of Intent to play basketball for John Groce at the University of Illinois. While he was lauded as "a missing piece," that was mostly unwarranted hype and excitement from Illini fans holding onto the threads of what once was.

Aaron came in as a freshman and averaged 3.3 points in 11.4 minutes a game for an awful basketball team. By no means world beating, but very respectable for a B1G freshman. Year two rolled around and his production dipped all the way down to 1 point in 7 minutes a game. Not even before the "postseason" began, the coach he had been committed to for nearly three years was fired.

Sophomore benchwarmer whose coach was replaced with a notoriously demanding yet relatively unproven coach? In today's game that's a transfer 95 times out of 100. Just look at his own recruiting class. Top 50 recruit and starter, Jalen Coleman-Lands? Gone. Top 80 recruit playing at around the same level, DJ Williams? Gone. Kipper Nichols? Well, Kipper had a weird recruitment/transfer and wasn't going to waste another year sitting out. Aaron Jordan? Never even thought about it.

What did that earn him? 20 minutes a game and 6 periodic starts in his Junior year. Not to mention a 700% and 16% increase in points and three-point shooting, respectively. Then something happened, even an outsider could tell there was a new element to his game. Aaron became more than a role player, he became a team leaderand helped establish the culture that Brad Underwood fought desperately to instill. This year he has played in every game, and has started all but two. His minutes have trended up, but his scoring is nearly identical to his junior year. He may not be lighting it up, but ask any (informed) Illinois fan and they'll tell you there aren't many guys they would rather have suiting up.

Why does Aaron Jordan mean so much to me? I am a senior and will graduate in two months, Aaron's senior night is my senior night in a way. It is the last chance I will have to watch my beloved Illinois basketball in person as a college student. I had dreamed about going to school here since my earliest memories of the 04-05 season, full of storming the court and watching deep into March. Those dreams did not exactly come true, as the class of 2019 will be the first since the early 80's to not see a bowl game or an NCAA Tournament birth in our four years. Many students don't care about the athletic program, but I do. I had been waiting for a signature moment for three and a half years before February 5th.

Before the Michigan State game, I got a message from a friend "I hope AJ has a great game tonight, and a chance to bawl his eyes out at midcourt in three hours."

Well, he got that chance. Needless to say I was emotional about the big win, but it didn't set in until I saw a still shot of Aaron surrounded by fellow students "bawling his eyes out." After that I had less than dry eyes myself. It felt like we were all finally able to release our years of frustration at once.

So, why does this make Aaron Jordan college basketball? The game is about emotion: sadness, anger, excitement, all of it. AJ is an emotional player with a passion for the school he attends. Every fan base wants an Aaron Jordan. A thick and thin, four-year bulldog of a player who lives and breathes for their alma mater. Aaron will never have his jersey in the rafters, he will never go to the tournament, never get all B1G honors, and won't have a career record above .500. However, if this team continues on the trajectory of the past two months, he deserves as much credit as anyone.

He will forever be one of my favorite Illini, and our four years in Champaign will have a special place in my heart.


Dr. Chim Richalds on March 07 @ 06:09 PM CST

Excellent post Harrison, and a great message as well. As fans it's far too easy for us to focus on analysis (myself certainly included) - evaluating the coach and players, projecting future performance, etc. - and to lose sight of the human element within each team and each game. I'm sure there have been dozens of incredibly difficult moments for Aaron over the past four years, and on a team that featured his two classmates leaving after his sophomore year, and six more teammates departing early last summer, this is well-deserved appreciation for a player who stuck with it through everything and has done nothing but bleed orange and blue and pour his heart out for the Illini. Much respect to Aaron for what he's done and the example he has set, as well as to you Harrison, for supporting the team all the way through (I'm sure it's not the most popular thing to do on campus these days).

Here's hoping you both get one last home win tonight!

HiggsBoson on March 07 @ 10:33 PM CST

Nice article. Sadly, the Illini stunk it up tonight even more than they did with the Flyin' Illini in the house. Rutgers looked like the far better team when they thumped the Illini in Champaign, so a beat down may be in the cards on Sunday. Then a Wednesday loss to whoever to close out the season.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, defections occur in the off season. That will tell you a lot about the future of this team and Brad Underwood. Bring back everybody who isn't graduating and there's reason for optimism. A repeat of he past two seasons where half the team turns over and we'll be discussing who we'd like as the new coach,

Bear8287 on March 09 @ 12:28 PM CST

Excellent post Harrison. Living thousands of miles away from UIUC it's sometimes hard to get a read on what the sentiment is like in town, but it was great to read that Aaron Jordan is getting some of the recognition that he deserves.

Top 50 recruit and starter, Jalen Coleman-Lands? Gone. Top 80 recruit playing at around the same level, DJ Williams? Gone. Kipper Nichols? Well, Kipper had a weird recruitment/transfer and wasn't going to waste another year sitting out. Aaron Jordan? Never even thought about it.

Yes, this is when Aaron became one of my favorites too. It signaled to me that he could be one of the upper classmen that BU could depend on to set the right tone and begin building a program around.

Thanks for writing this post and thanks Robert for posting it.

As an aside, instead of getting the story of well back in my days of walking to school in the snow up hill both ways... you have gone through a pretty miserable four years of Illinois football and basketball.

In 1979-80 there were only 15 NCAA Div I-A bowl games and in 1980 there were only 48 NCAA tournament teams. The Illini basketball team finished 3rd that season in the NIT (yes, they still played a 3rd place game then).

Contrast that to today where in 2018-2019 there were 38 Div-1 FBS bowl games plus another game for the championship. There were 10 teams with 6-6 records going into those games too. Play in a Power 5 conference and have a .500 record? You've got a good chance of going to a bowl game. It used to be (circa 1980) that your team had to be "good" to get to a bowl game. Now you just pretty much have to not be "bad" to get to a bowl game.

Add in that the NCAA tourney now takes 68 teams instead of 48 and that bar is lower too.

Hang in there Harrison. It's still fun to cheer for your alma mater after graduation and I'm optimistic that there are better days ahead for both programs. Best wishes for a bright future for you and the Illini after you graduate.

Gary48 on March 10 @ 09:00 AM CDT

I also want to thank Harrison and Robert. This article and Aaron Jordan captures exactly why I look forward to watching every Illinois basketball game. I normally watch on television since I no longer live in Illinois (although I have listened to a game over the internet from New Zealand). I rout for players and coaches who are committed to our university and want to return it to the top of the Big and into national relevancy where we belong, but also are committed to doing it the right way.

Sweetchuck13 on March 11 @ 08:29 AM CDT

Great post, thanks for sharing Harrison.

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