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It’s About the Journey

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On heartbreak.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I am a Packers fan. Born in 2000, Hall of Fame quarterback play from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers is all I’ve ever known. The Green and Gold have done a whole lot of winning in my time as a fan, and let me tell ya, it’s been awesome.

But the last decade of Packers football is largely characterized by disappointment. After winning the Super Bowl in 2010 with Rodgers just entering his prime, Green Bay looked poised to be a dynasty. That didn’t happen.

Eleven years later, the Packers still have not won another Super Bowl. They haven’t even made it there. Instead, Green Bay has followed up promising regular seasons with playoff heartbreak time and time again. And it hurts every time. Every. Single. Time.

Bears fans aren’t as familiar with this feeling. Despite the occasional postseason run, they aren’t burdened with the weight of expectations. When a game-winning field goal attempt double doinks off the goalposts, they don’t have to live with the disappointment of yet another season without a Super Bowl. When the dust settles, the Bears fan can just be happy to be there.

But the experience of a Bears fan the past decade has been much worse than my own. Rather than perennial heartbreak, the Bears have been stuck in perpetual mediocrity, hoping that the next new GM will be the one to turn the team around. That the next new head coach will be the one to get the most out of their talent. That the next new quarterback will be the face of the franchise Chicago has so desperately longed for. In the NFL, I don’t know that pain.

In college basketball, I do.

My first distinct memory of Illini basketball is the image of a dejected Bruce Weber in the newspaper after Illinois’ streak of eight consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances was snapped. From that moment on, my Illini fandom was all about waiting for The Year.

At first, it was The Year that Illinois would make a tournament run. Then, it was The Year that Illinois would be consistently in the rankings. Finally, it was The Year that Illinois would just make the tournament at all. No matter how many times I declared it to be, it was never The Year. At least, not until Brad Underwood and Ayo Dosunmu came along.

In 2020, at long last, Illinois was finally set to dance. Underwood had the Illini rolling, and Dosunmu seemed built for March. Then came the heartbreak of seeing that tournament taken away by COVID-19.

Last year, after Dosunmu returned, Illinois actually did get to dance. Sixteen wins in conference play and a Big Ten Tournament title — Illinois’ first banner since 2005 — earned the Illini a 1-seed in the tournament, and they were a popular pick to win the whole thing. Then they were promptly upset in the first weekend by a Jesuit school from Chicago.

This year, Illinois exited the tournament early once again. And it hurts.

It feels impossible that the team that steamrolled its way through December, the team that won the Big Ten regular season title for the first time in my memory, the team led by super senior legends Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, that this team would go out with a whimper.

But I’m not going to remember this season for the way that it ended.

Kofi Cockburn’s All-American campaign, Trent Frazier’s double daggers in the state of Michigan, winning the freakin’ Big Ten Championship. That’s a whole lot more than I can say about most Illini teams in my memory.

Choosing a team that languishes at the bottom of the conference but has no expectations or a great team that disappoints in the postseason, I’m taking the latter 100 times out of 100. Heartbreak has nothing on irrelevance.

As we turn the page to next season, there’s no guarantee there won’t be more heartbreak. The very randomness that makes the NCAA Tournament so captivating can also make it so very cruel.

What won’t happen anytime soon, though, is more irrelevance. In the words of Brad Underwood: “One thing to do is to keep getting back here. We will keep getting back here.”

I believe him. Underwood has built Illinois basketball back into a Big Ten power. There will be more opportunities in March. And one of these years, Illinois will break through.

That could be a Sweet Sixteen. That could be a Final Four. Heck, that could be a national championship. But I truly, truly believe that it’s going to happen, and I think Underwood does too.

While I’m waiting, and Lord knows I’ve been waiting a long time, I’m going to make sure to enjoy the journey. To stop and smell the roses. To appreciate every banner in State Farm Center and every player that hung it up there.

The journey is about more than just its end. May one day that journey last a little longer.