The first time Trent Frazier played in the Orange and Blue, the Illini dropped a painful exhibition game to Eastern Illinois in Brad Underwood’s Illinois coaching debut.
Four years later, Brad Underwood holds a 70-55 record, the Illini are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Frazier is just a day away from playing in his first March Madness game.
“To walk out on the basketball court earlier and see ‘March Madness’ it was like all my dreams come true,” he said on Wednesday.
Frazier, who played a team-high 43 minutes in the Illini’s 91-88 overtime win over Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship, was one of the first players to hoist the tournament trophy. A fitting honor for a player like Frazier who has been in Champaign through the highs and lows of Illinois Basketball.
The senior, like the rest of the team, got to cut down a piece of the net that was hanging in Lucas Oil Stadium after the win. Frazier was the first player up the ladder to get his string. Most players tied their piece of nylon around their Big Ten Tournament Champions hat.
The difference for Frazier? The hat is still on his head.
“It’s been a long journey and this is a special feeling,” Frazier said over Zoom from the Indianapolis bubble. “I don’t think I’ve not worn this hat since Sunday.”
Frazier averaged 12.5 points per game his freshman year, leading all Big Ten freshmen and earning him a place on the 2017-18 All-Big Ten Freshman Team and an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod. His sophomore season saw an increase in scoring, 13.7 points per game, landing him a second consecutive honorable mention All-Big Ten selection.
The issue was the Illini had only won 26 games in two years combined. After that, as Underwood began to develop the Illini into a defensive team with a strong clubhouse culture, Frazier soon became the team’s best defender, and the team dramatically improved. The Illini have strung together back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in eight years – assisted tremendously by Frazier’s defense, which was recognized with an All-Big Ten Defensive Team accolade.
“This is four years worth of work, man,” Frazier said.
The Illini now stand as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, fresh off their first conference tournament title since 2005 and are expected by many to make a deep run into the tournament.
For Frazier, who has been through the ups and downs of this rebuild, his mindset is one of gratitude for the opportunity he and his teammates have in front of them.
“We’re not going to take none of this for granted,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy every day that we can, as much as we can. We’re going to take care of our COVID business, handle that as much as we can so that it doesn’t get stripped from us. We know what that felt like last year, so our main focus right now is to continue to stay mentally focused and prepare for each game, each day and take it all in and enjoy the moment because this is the best time of our life right now.”
Frazier is in elite company in Illinois history with over 1,000 points, and he is one of the best three-point shooters the Illini have ever seen. But when he puts on his jersey and ties his shoes for the 125th time in an Illini uniform, it will be in his first as part of the NCAA Tournament, an opportunity he has earned and worked for.