On Big Ten Network’s ”The Journey”, Giorgi Bezhanishvili perfectly characterized the 2018-19 season as “The Beautiful Struggle”. It took a freshman from Rustavi, Georgia to find the words, but as Aaron Jordan, Adonis De La Rosa and Drew Cayce walk through that State Farm Tunnel for the last time tonight against Indiana, that’ll be the tagline for the 2019 senior class.
Barring something extraordinary, none of those guys will have played at an NCAA Tournament while at Illinois, and yet in their final respective years at Illinois, all three managed to play for the bigger picture. And in one way or another, each had their own hardship dealt.
Drew Cayce entered the program as a walk-on, earning sparse playing time at certain times in his career, but ultimately settled in as a practice player.
Adonis De La Rosa tore his ACL in March 2018 but decided to transfer to a program that had immediate playing time and a connection to his past. Illinois was an ideal location, but the health of his knee was less than, and he never rounded out into the player he was prior to his injury, so he had to concede starters’ minutes to rising star Bezhanishvili.
And Aaron Jordan, a four-star guard who sat in Memorial Stadium and watched a John Groce presentation about how he was the missing piece to a Final Four, silently worked on his craft while the rest of his recruiting class of Darius Paul (?), Jalen Coleman-Lands (DePaul) and DJ Williams (George Washington) all transferred out. Even into this year, a large portion of Illini Nation assumed he would transfer out to find more shots or wins; instead he stayed in the gym, the place he leveraged to build his career, and pulled the group of underclassmen he inherited along to teach them about hard work.
And in one way or another, each of these seniors accepted their respective realities, understood their role in the greater good of the program and worked toward whatever that role was going to be. That’s ridiculously mature for a college student, and worthy of the ”Beautiful Struggle” moniker.
One of the amazing things about following a program in earnest — and getting to watch these kids from the time they’re budding recruits — is that each one writes their own story for the memory you’ll keep of them. And after enough years pass, that’s really what you’ll remember of them. It’s tough to remember Chester Frazier as the 35.9% shooter he was because Chester Frazier is the ultimate warrior, 195 pounds of bulldog from the mean streets of Baltimore, and he literally played so hard he needed post-game IVs because of his exhaustion.
What will Cayce, De La Rosa and Jordan be in a decade? It’s hard to tell, and a lot of their legacy probably hinges on the trajectory of Underwood’s next few teams at Illinois. If Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier are rushing the crowd to celebrate with Aaron Jordan on the way to the Sweet 16, it’s going to sway my recollections. But I suspect that over time, this group of seniors’ limitations fade away, and I remember how much they sacrificed for kids they’ll never play with again, and how much they loved Illinois.
*Editor’s Note: Underwood announced during his press conference on Wednesday that Cayce will be a graduate assistant with the program next season.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!