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 possibilities of the future 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 lowest 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.
Then came the potential tipping point of the season. Down by a single point at home against Michigan State with six seconds left, Dosunmu raced down court intent on hitting yet another game winner. He never got the shot away. Instead, his right foot slipped out from under him as he attempted to rise for the shot, 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 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 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 four 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 - one of his best stat lines of the season. A fitting conclusion to a simply spectacular two months of basketball.
Not to say that the past two months have been solely 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.
But Ayo has been the constant. He's the guy around which every opposing team builds their scout, and he has still been consistently up to the task. He has carried the weight night in and night out - and done 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 its 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, 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 has served to rebuild the foundation of a program now back on the rise.
February and March in recent seasons meant playing out the string in front of moribund crowds in attendance more out of a sense of duty than anything else. Compare that to the atmospheres of this February and March. Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, and then 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 5 in the country good. I'm not politicking here - just stating what the reality would be if Ayo stayed.
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.