CHICAGO — Trent Frazier walked around the locker room after Thursday's season-ending loss to Iowa in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
He extended an arm, shook hands with each of his teammates and pulled them in for a hug. None of the Illini players were ready for the Hawkeyes to end their season yet, and that wasn't necessarily the case one year ago at Madison Square Garden in a first-round Big Ten Tournament exit.
Players sat at their lockers silently reflecting on the season, some with stoic looks in their eyes. There was growth. There was a four-game winning streak that sent a shockwave through the Big Ten before losing five of six games to close the regular season.
It was a process that was to be expected with eight new faces on the team and a push towards younger players. Three of the top four leading scorers from Thursday's loss were freshmen: Ayo Dosunmu, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Tevian Jones. The other was Frazier, a sophomore. The youth was combined with the sixth-toughest schedule in the country, according to KenPom.
On "The Journey" on the Big Ten Network earlier this season, Bezhanishvili called the season a "beautiful struggle."
“That’s a perfect description," Frazier said. "We won four in a row, then we lost four in a row. We all could have went our separate ways. The biggest thing is family.
“Last year around this time, we wanted it to be over. This year it meant so much more to us and we all wanted to be out there together and try to win and try to win this tournament. We’ll continue to grow and work hard every day."
Illinois had its high points this season — a court-storming win over No. 9 Michigan State being the most memorable. The Illini also flew back from Madison Square Garden with a win over Maryland, which was ranked at the time.
There was also the home loss to Florida Atlantic and the sputtering way to end the season. Those losses and the up-and-downs built calluses on the feet of a young team. Drew Cayce, who was a walk-on who didn't play much this season, but will be a graduate assistant on the team next season.
“Every good team is going to go through a rough patch at some point, whether that be in their four years or in a given year," Cayce said. "I think this year is definitely going to prepare our guys for the future to come no matter what."
Now the focus turns toward the offseason. Coach Brad Underwood highlighted the need to hit the weight room. He said the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores and grow more into their bodies.
There is the matter of Dosunmu's future intentions and if he will or won't declare for the NBA Draft. When asked to evaluate his season, he was critical of himself, despite being the first freshman to lead the team in scoring in program history with 13.8 points per game.
He didn't come to Champaign to put up big numbers and bow out before hearing his team's name on Selection Sunday.
That one stings.
“I’m very hard on myself," he said from the locker room with a white Gatorade towel wrapped around his neck. "I feel like this year was a failure. I feel like I came here to try to win and make the NCAA Tournament and we didn’t do that. I really don’t care about all the other accolades. My personal assessment of myself, I feel like this season is a failure."
Other questions linger beyond Dosunmu. Will there be any unexpected transfers? Underwood spoke highly of each of his young players prior to the game and their future value to the program. Recruiting is also front and center. The Illini have two verbal commitments from four-star big men Antwan January and Kofi Cockburn to give the Illini a punch in size in the front court.
Time and time again in his near-11 minute media scrum following Thursday's loss, Underwood mentioned the word culture, and how it's been established in Champaign. He also said he isn't concerned about the wins and losses this season — which was 12 wins and a program-record 21 losses.
“I knew what I was getting into when I took the job," he said while leaning up against a wall in the underbelly of the United Center. "This is Year 1. It’s Year 2 of my contract, but this is Year 1. Last year, we got through it. We knew there would be some ups and downs. This year we were dealt an unfortunate hand with our schedule being so tough. We’ve handled that. We’ve established a culture.
“This program deserves to be great, not just have great teams. You’ve got to lay the foundation and you’ve got to build it. There are going to be ups and downs in doing that. You’ve got to go through that process. There are no shortcuts. I’m very proud of this group. I loved coaching them all day and we’re not taking shortcuts in this program."
Each loss and stumble helped harden the team. The foundation, they say, has been set.
“Great things," senior Aaron Jordan said of what to expect next season. "Greatness and they shouldn’t expect anything less from everything they went through this year and just learning. The things we asked some of these guys to do was incredible and just learning from that. Next year, we shouldn’t be making the same mistakes. We should be thinking about moving forward. We should have a high expectation for ourselves."