Some Gave All
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Some people follow only professional sports. Bill Simmons comes to mind. His stance, which I completely understand, is that the product put out by the NFL and NBA is far superior to college football or basketball, so why would anyone want to watch the inferior product? I totally get why people just want to watch the best in the world compete at the highest level.
Others have a specific sport. "High school, college, pros - just put me in a gym with basketballs bouncing and I'm home". We all know that guy. I'm not that guy, but I understand that guy.
For me, it's college sports. And it took me a while to realize that. I've told the story a dozen times now but when I graduated from Illinois and moved back to the St. Louis area I thought it was time to "graduate" to professional sports. So for a few years I was way more into the Cardinals, Rams, and Blues than I was the Illini. That faded quickly, though, once I was maybe 10 years out of college, I realized that Illinois football and basketball took up 92% of my sports brain while the St. Louis professional teams (plus Aston Villa) took up the other 8%.
Again, this isn't a right-or-wrong issue. Bill Simmons isn't wrong for looking down on college basketball. Nor is the guy who equally loves the Bears, White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls, Illini, and Bayern Munich wrong for spreading his sports love around. Everyone sees these things a little bit differently.
For me, sports = allegiance. I don't know why, really. That's just how I see it. People will say to me "you're a college football guy - what did you think of LSU-Florida the other night?" and I'll answer saying that I'm an Illini football guy, not a college football guy. People would be stunned at how little college football I watch apart from Illini football. I don't see the point if my team isn't playing. I'd much rather watch our game again.
Same with college basketball. As a "college sports guy", everyone expects me to take off the Thursday and Friday of Tournament week and watch games from 11 to 11 each day. I mean, I like the Tournament, and I love a good buzzer beater where a 13 beats a 4, but I really just want to know how far Illinois can go (and hope for every rival to lose). In that past, when we used to make the Tournament every year, I'd often skip the second weekend entirely if we lost in the Round of 32. It's just too painful to see some of those teams continuing on while we had to go home.
Everything, for me, goes through the lens of loyalty. I'm loyal to you, Illinois. And as a result, Iowa can get bent.
The other thing that comes along with being a "college sports guy": my respect for the fact that these athletes are more or less competing for free. I'd imagine it's similar to someone who loves Civil War re-enactments and can't believe his luck that hundreds of people want to volunteer to put one on. They're willing to go out there and perform for free to provide for me the thing I love. Massive, massive respect.
That's how I feel about Illini athletes. Yes, they get free tuition and housing. Yes, it helps them get on the radar for NBA/NFL teams and chase their professional dream. But really, they're out there competing for free. They're volunteering to entertain us.
Because of that, when someone gives the Illini everything they have, it hits me in a spot that I don't think Bill Simmons would understand. I love my school. This player loves my school. He wants to win so that we can both be happy.
Obviously, tonight, I'm talking about Trent Frazier. I tweeted about this right after the game, but let's make the timeline longer than 280 characters:
- Trent commits to John Groce. Before he arrives on campus, John Groce is fired. Trent sticks with Illinois.
- It looked like he might start as a freshman under Groce. But the new coach brings in a spring recruit - Mr. Basketball in Illinois - and that recruit begins the season in the starting lineup while Trent comes off the bench.
- This didn't seem to bother Trent. And about halfway through that freshman season, he won the starting spot back. And he played so well in conference play that he was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
- But it wasn't a pretty start. That was a 14-win season, and then Trent was one of only four players to return the next year as the new coach cleaned house. 14 wins the first year, only 12 the second year. The two worst back-to-back seasons for Illinois since the 1970's.
- Then the team began to revolve around two superstars - Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. And Trent had to accept a different role. He averaged 12.5 ppg as a freshman and 13.7 ppg as a sophomore but that dropped to 9.1 ppg as a junior. He had to transform from Trent Frazier, go-to scorer into Trent Frazier, defensive stopper.
- Now, as a senior, he continues to play that role. He's one of the top on-the-ball defenders in the nation yet he doesn't get named to the midseason DPOY list. He's lost some of his three point attempts to freshman Adam Miller. His four years in Champaign have basically been "Milton, we're going to need you to move your desk to the basement".
So for him to have a night like tonight - 24 points, 4-9 from three, two huge free throws late, more lockdown defense on Bohannon - just makes me so very I-L-L. Someone in the comments of one of my Trent tweets tonight called it his "signature game" and I think that's so true. There were some great Trent moments as a freshman and sophomore before his role had to change, but I don't think any of those moments would be better than tonight.
That screw-you dunk from Iowa at the end of the game in Iowa City last year lit the flame under this rivalry again, and after the near-fight in the game in Champaign last March, everything was back on. This year, there's just one game on the schedule between these two teams, so this was full-on braggin' rights... and Trent Frazier was the reason we won.
I mean, other players had to have big games. Jacob Grandison, who, I'd like to note, played a total of 15 minutes across five games in early December, played 30 minutes tonight and had 11 points and 10 rebounds. Ayo had a massive first half and finished with 25 points (3 for 3 from 3). But this game was won because Trent scored 24. Adam Miller had an off night (held scoreless), so defensive stopper Trent Frazier had to step up and score 16 over his season average. Trent's signature game gives us a signature win.
And that's SO DESERVED. Anyone who accepts a lesser role in order to help the team win deserves a moment like this. Deserves 10 moments like this. Our senior leader plays 38 minutes and leads us to a win over #7 Iowa. Hey Siri remind me of that every day for the next month.
That's why I love college sports. That's why I love the Illini. Trent was every phrase of every school song tonight, from "the men who are fighting for you" to "have sand". In his four years, he's given us everything he has, and that's all we could ever ask.
Well, that and a deep tournament run capped by an Elite Eight win where Trent hits a buzzer-beater.