PORTLAND, Ore. – Perhaps Seth Davis finally got it right. As hard as it might be to admit, he knew what he was talking about when picking Western Kentucky to upset the Fighting Illini in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Maybe Davis saw what so many other people had overlooked the entire season. The absence of senior guard Chester Frazier proved more costly than any three-pointer the Hilltoppers jacked up or any of the long rebounds they secured.
Frazier didn’t exactly put up alarming numbers in his final season with Illinois, but what he did throughout the course of the year was pad his resume for an upcoming coaching gig. He knows he’s not going to play at the professional level, and even if given the opportunity he has so far shrugged off any suggestion he will continue playing.
One of the reasons Frazier cut his infamous locks was to present a more professional image. He didn’t like the negative stereotype that might have followed him otherwise. And with plans to become a coach following graduation, he thought he’d get a jump start on the interview process.
What he might not realize is that he has been interviewing for a coaching job for the four years he has worn orange and blue. His oncourt hustle, charismatic attitude and win at all costs mentality are a perfect fit for a sideline gig. He prides himself on being an extension of coach Bruce Weber, and the Illini frankly aren’t the same without him. Frazier sitting out of Thursday’s game was likely the biggest difference behind an Illinois win and a premature return to Champaign. No one on the current roster could have pestered opposing guards as much on the defensive end of the court and few have shown the aggressive effort he put forth every time he pulled the Illinois jersey over his head.
The Illini proved many of its harshest critics wrong by finishing in second place in the Big Ten and even making the NCAA tournament after a poor and frankly disappointing 2007-2008 season. Illinois might not have fulfilled all of its wishes this year, but it did surprise everyone that said a turnaround wasn’t possible. More importantly, what the trio of seniors (Frazier, Trent Meacham, Calvin Brock) did was put the Illini back on the map and set the stage for the next two seasons. It’s been no secret all year that some of the best players on the squad still have two years of eligibility remaining. And with a Top 10 recruiting class set to hit campus this fall, who knows where they might end up.
One of the biggest criticisms of Weber when he took the job at UI was that he couldn’t recruit. He has since debunked any suggestion that he is not able to get quality players to sign on for a few years. What he has also done is prove he can revive a program after spending a year in the basement of one of the most criticized conferences in the nation.
Weber, Frazier and the Illini have laid the ground work for up and coming classes. Now it is the job of the returning players to learn from the last two seasons and continue bringing success to Illini Nation. It is the least of things they could do for their predecessors.