ROSEMONT, Ill. — Brad Underwood’s first year as head coach at Illinois was a long one to say the least. The Illini dropped multiple winnable games and struggled in conference play. The roster turnover this offseason reflected just how much of a toll that season took on everyone.
“Last year, we had a couple situations where guys didn’t want to be here,” said sophomore guard Trent Frazier on Thursday at Big Ten Media Day. “Some guys just went out there each night, just to play. They didn’t really want to help this team win.”
In year two, Underwood has talked about laying his “foundation” for the program while also establishing an identity and a culture. Things just feel different with this team.
“This is the best locker room I’ve been in,” said senior Aaron Jordan. “Guys love to be around each other, love to hang out with each other, love to be on the court with each other. Coming into practice, you get to compete against your best friend, I get to compete against my brother, I get to compete against the guy I’m about to go to war with. Just buying into that and having that feeling, it’s amazing. I felt it. It was new for me, only because I haven’t been around that.”
Whether it’s Giorgi riding around on his bike—or as he calls it, his “Lambo”—Jordan and freshman Alan Griffin trying to one up each other in shooting contests, or freshman-to-freshman transition alley-oops, this team carries a swagger that it didn’t have last season.
“‘All-Defense First Team,’ he repeats that to himself,” Jordan said on freshman Ayo Dosunmu. “He goes out there and locks guys up. I love that passion about him. Getting after the ball, you have to have that. Throughout all my years, a lot of freshmen don’t. But he does. He’s a great teammate and even better person.”
Jordan is right. Illinois fans were treated to an encore showing of their prized recruit this summer when he got to compete with the USA U18 National Team at the FIBA Americas Championship. If there was one thing you can take away from Dosunmu’s game, it’s that he plays hard and he wreaks havoc on opposing ballhandlers.
There’s still a lot for this inexperienced Illinois team to prove, however. Only four guys have suited up for the Illini before the season with five newcomers being true freshmen and two transfers without any playing time at the high-major Division I level. After all, Illinois was picked to finish 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams in a preseason poll.
On the low expectations for Illinois, Jordan said: “They’re called preseason rankings for a reason. You still gotta throw the ball up. You still gotta play with five guys out there. This team is capable of a lot of things, and once everybody sees that, including the fans and doubters, they’re gonna see what we can do.”
Despite just being a sophomore, Illinois will look to Frazier to carry much of the weight of this team last year. As a freshman, the shifty guard from Florida averaged 12.5 points per game on 35 percent shooting from behind the arc and just over three assists per game.
“I’m like the quarterback,” Frazier said—although, he added that he has hands like New York Giants’ wideout Odell Beckham Jr. “The main thing I’m trying to work on is being more vocal and being more of a leader. Just getting better every day. Pulling these young guys along, helping them, and just keeping this team together. I have to do everything right for this team to be successful and win.”
It’s a lot of responsibility to fall on a sophomore’s shoulders, but as the biggest returner from last year, freshmen will look up to him and opposing teams will have him at the top of their scouting report, which Underwood noted during his morning media session.
Frazier has the keys to a brand new Mustang, and he’s got passengers with a ton of potential. Whether or not they can steer their sweet ride to an NCAA Tournament is a question that only they will determine.
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