Mar 9, 2020

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October 19, 2017 was "Decision Reveal" night for Ayo Dosunmu. A podium was set up at the Jordan Brand store in downtown Chicago in front of a small crowd made up of his family, teammates, friends, and media. Dosunmu walked up to that podium wearing a white Nike polo shirt emblazoned with a blue "Block I" and altered the trajectory of the Illinois basketball program.

I was in attendance that night, and I wrote then about the status of the Illini brand going into that night (dead) and the brand's future potential based on Dosunmu's decision (limitless).

By any individual metric, Dosunmu had a fantastic freshman campaign. He was a Big Ten All-Freshman team member, an honorable mention All Big Ten overall selection, and was mentioned on many mock NBA draft boards as a late first round/early second round possibility. But his team won only 12 games - the fewest of any Illinois team in over 40 years. Dosunmu flirted with the draft, but ultimately decided to return for his sophomore campaign - announcing his return with a fresh new hashtag: #UnfinishedBusiness.

As such, the beginning of this season brought with it the burden of expectations. A burden vocally welcomed by the Illini players and staff alike. However, after a lackluster November and December, and a bad road loss at Michigan State, the Illini sat with a middling 9-5 record. They were barely an afterthought in NCAA Tournament projections, and questions were being raised about Dosunmu having already reached his ceiling after just a season and a half.

Then it all turned around.

First came a seven game win streak to close out January - during which Dosunmu staked his claim as one of college basketball's most lethal finishers. A dagger three at Wisconsin, free throws down the stretch against Rutgers, the final four points against Northwestern, and a last second game winner to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. Already a devastating weapon in the open floor, Dosunmu unveiled a mid-range game that made him deadly in the half court as well.

The potential tipping point of the season came on February 11. Down by a single point at home against Michigan State with six seconds left, Dosunmu raced down court intent on knocking down yet another game winner. He never got the chance. Instead, as he planted to rise for the shot, his right foot slipped and his left knee torqued in all manner of unfortunate directions. He was helped off the court with an apparent knee injury, and even though the subsequent MRI would come back clean, his availability for the remainder of the season was in serious doubt.

Illinois lost badly at Rutgers with Dosumnu sidelined, and that oh so familiar angst began to creep across the collective psyche of Illinois fans who have come to reflexively expect the worst over the past several seasons.

But then just three days after the Rutgers loss, there was Dosunmu in uniform warming up before the game at Penn State. There he was back in the starting lineup. There he was going All-Access against the Nittany Lions - showing no ill effects from his injury and dominating the game over 37 minutes. He punctuated a legendary performance by tear-dropping in a running floater with 16 seconds left to secure a crucial road win and prevent what would have been a fifth straight loss. Instead, that win kickstarted a four game win streak which cemented Illinois' status as an NCAA Tournament lock.

And now once more - with feeling. Tonight against Iowa, the Hawkeyes were threatening to ruin Senior Night - having sliced a 16 point second half Illini lead to just 4 with under two minutes remaining. Dosunmu proceeded to drill two contested mid-range jumpers over the final two minutes to help secure a 78-76 win and lock up 4th place in the Big Ten regular season. He finished tonight with 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists - arguably his best stat line of the season. A fitting conclusion to a simply spectacular two months of basketball.

It would be unfair to call the past two months a one man show. Tonight was Senior Night after all, and I would be remiss to not praise the commitment of walkons Tyler Underwood and Samson Oladimeji, the perseverance of Kipper Nichols, and the relentless toughness and heart of Andres Feliz. This Illinois team has had different supporting cast members step up every night. Kofi Cockburn, Feliz, Giorgi B, Trent Frazier, Alan Griffin, Kipper Nichols, and DMW have all had their signature moments and performances.

That said, Ayo was the constant. He's the guy around which every opposing team built their scout, and he was up to the task every time. He carried the weight night in and night out - and did so with a killer smile on his face. So tonight, as I took in the electric atmosphere of a sold out State Farm Center with the volume turned up to 11, I reflected once more on Dosunmu's decision night, his Illinois career, and what he has meant to this program.

On that night in October 2017, Dosunmu took a chance on his home state flagship school - putting his trust in a staff that had yet to coach a game for Illinois. His decision represented the first step of the Illinois program's long journey back from the depths of irrelevance, and his performance over the past two seasons served to rebuild the foundation of a program now fully on the come.

In recent seasons, games in February and March served merely to play out the string in front of moribund crowds there out of a sense of duty more than anything else. Compare that to the atmosphere in the building this winter for Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa tonight. Tonight was as loud as I've heard the State Farm Center in forever. Illinois will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Consider Ayo's business finished - for now at least.

Although the speculation is that Dosunmu played his last home game for Illinois tonight, there has been no official decision announced regarding his plans for next year. He was not honored as part of the Senior Night festivities as is sometimes done with players who have made their early entry intentions clear. If he did return he would likely be a preseason All-American and this Illinois team could be a juggernaut - like top 10 in the country caliber. I'm not politicking here - just stating the reality were Ayo to come back for his junior season.

However, if he does opt to turn the page to the next chapter of his basketball life, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to write about the experience it's been as a writer to document Dosunmu's career and what a thrill it's been as a fan to watch him play.


+That game tonight was INTENSE - as was the first matchup with Iowa in Carver-Hawkeye. The Iowa hate is real again. After the game, Dosunmu candidly stated that this budding rivalry between the two teams has developed because "We just don't like each other." The BTT bracket is set up for a rubber match between the two next Friday in Indianapolis - assuming Iowa can beat the winner of Northwestern/Minnesota.

+Near the end of last season, I wrote about continuity (the number of returning minutes for a team) in college basketball. There is ample historical data to support the idea that teams (even bad ones) who return a lot of minutes from the previous season tend to get much better. This was one of the primary reasons behind my optimism heading into this season. Illinois finished this regular season with a continuity factor of over 75% - 9th best in all of college basketball. Simply put - this team has grown up together, and is all the better for it.

+Trent Frazier's skid continues. He was 1 of 8 from the arc tonight, and over the second half of the Big Ten Season, he is 11/57 (19%) from deep. I like that he continues to try to shoot himself out of his slump, but so far he doesn't have much to show for those efforts. On the other hand - Da'Monte Williams is 9 for his last 17 from three. Go figure.

+It says here that Ayo Dosunmu is a first team All Big Ten player, and Kofi Cockburn is Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

+SELECTION SUNDAY IS IN ONE WEEK AND ILLINOIS WILL BE PLAYING IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT. Feels like a 7 seed is the floor right now. Assuming that Northwestern doesn't beat both Minnesota and Iowa, we will only play Q1 games in the Big Ten Tournament. The upshot here being no more potential seed harming losses on the schedule, but still ample opportunity to possibly move up a seed line or two.


No bowl, no tourney on March 9, 2020 @ 09:09 AM

There are some things that are just good for college basketball. Illinois and Iowa both being really good, really not liking each other and having chippy games is one of those things. I'll never forget when the 1989 team had Kendall Gill returning from injury and the Illini completely throttled a top 20 Iowa team. One that had B.J. Armstrong, Roy Marble and Ed Horton. They almost put up 120 points. It's always more special to beat Iowa.

maz13 on March 9, 2020 @ 09:53 AM

This was by far the most exciting game I have ever attended in person. The atmosphere was incredible from the opening tip to the end of the game. This is what Illinois basketball should be and hopefully this excitement is here to stay!

IlliNYC on March 9, 2020 @ 10:44 AM

"Tonight was as loud as I've heard the State Farm Center in forever. This is what Ayo said he wanted to do for the Illinois program. Mission accomplished."

Exactly. He breathed life into this program.

This entire B1G season has just been fun for me. I'd forgotten what it felt like to have big games that weren't also make or break for getting into the tournament.

orangejulius on March 9, 2020 @ 06:14 PM

I found an article from Dec. stating that 3-point percentages have declined across college basketball by only 1% due to the line being moved back to int'l distance. In 2019-20, Trent is down around 6% from his career average. Hopefully we will see a regression to the mean in the post-season from Trent.

Giovantischixstripz on March 9, 2020 @ 09:54 PM

Underwood said it in his post game presser and I think/hope he is right, that Trent is going to win us a game either in the BTT or in the big dance by just finally finding that stroke and going 5 for 7 from 3 or something like that.

wingnut on March 10, 2020 @ 01:53 PM

Games like this one, and the nail biters at Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan make me grateful for what this team has accomplished. But, hard to not think about having gotten that rebound when the Spartans visited - and been able to hang a banner.

Also - my Iowa hatred is such that I don't care if it's exciting basketball, I don't want a rivalry with them. Make the rivalry Indiana, Wisconsin, Mizzou - I want Iowa back in the cellar for good. I hope Garza's departure does just that. (Despite my disdain for all things Iowa, Garza is amazing.)

Bear8287 on March 11, 2020 @ 11:11 AM

Team         B1G       Kenpom  AP   Coaches
Wisconsin     1-T        22     18    19    
Mich St.      1-T         7      9    12    
Maryland      1-T        11     12    11    
Illinois      4          30     21    22    
Iowa          5-T        23     25    25    
Penn St.      5-T        26     30    26    
Ohio St.      5-T         8     19    20    
Rutgers       5-T        27     37    37    
Michigan      9          15     29    28    
Purdue       10-T        24     44     -    
Indiana      10-T        39      -     -    
Minnesota    12          29      -     -    
Northwestern 13         128      -     -    
Nebraska     14         152      -     -   

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