Mar 7, 2021

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Brad Underwood: "We're in a good place right now"

Ayo Dosunmu: "This is everything I came back for - and more."

It was the best of times. It was the best of times.

Illinois entered last weekend facing the most daunting of challenges. Games against three ranked teams - two of them sporting 1-seed NCAA Tournament quality resumes. On the road. Without Ayo Dosunmu.

@#23 Wisconsin: In the Kohl Center - a building in which Illinois had only won twice in the last decade - we controlled the game for 38 minutes and outlasted a supernatural two minute stretch from D'Mitrik Trice to beat the Badgers.

@#2 Michigan: With Dosunmu still sidelined, Illinois hit the Wolverines with a suffocating defensive effort and steamrolled to a 23 point annihilation in what was for my money the best "program win" of the Brad Underwood era.

@#7 Ohio State: With Dosunmu back in the lineup, the Illini were still down two possessions with under three minutes to play. We turned up the defensive heat - forcing the Buckeyes into 10 consecutive missed shots and finished the game with a 9-0 run - closed out by who else but the masked super-Ayo.

There is peaking at the right time - and then there is what we all witnessed this week. While many had relinquished hopes of an NCAA 1-seed after the MSU loss/ Ayo injury, this team laced up its big boy shoes and put together one of the most impressive single weeks of Illini basketball any of us has ever seen. And while it may indeed be the BEST WEEK EVER!, there is a very juicy comp to consider. Let me take you back to the first week of March in 1989.

Our beloved Flying Illini enjoyed this stretch over the final week of the Big Ten season:

+ Win at #3 Indiana. (The Nick Anderson shot)

+ Win at home against #15 Iowa as Kendall Gill returned to the lineup after missing 12 games with an injured foot. "Win" is too tame a word. We eviscerated the Hawkeyes on Senior Day to the tune of 118-94.

+ Win at Michigan to finish out the Big Ten season and secure a #1 NCAA seed.

The parallels are actually kind of scary. The order of events isn't the same, but both weeks had a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament at stake, featured huge blowouts at Michigan, saw the return from injury of a superstar, and road wins which weren't decided until the final minute.

I'll get back to that, but first I can't help but to think back to November before this season tipped off and to the pit in my stomach that never really dissolved until this amazing week. Ranked #8 in the first AP poll and picked first by the conference media to win the Big Ten, the expectations facing this team were heavy indeed, and the worst seasons by far are those which fail to meet expectations. I so wanted (NEEDED) this season to hit the mark so every little bump in the road felt like an earthquake to my fragile Illini fan soul. Every misstep a referendum on the season as a whole. The loss at Mizzou, those back to back home losses to Maryland and OSU, the OT struggles at Indiana and Nebraska, the Ayo injury. I kept looking around for falling wheels, but instead this team just continued to answer every challenge and make statement after statement.

It's silly in retrospect. Silly that I would question the resolve of battle hardened seniors like Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams. That I would worry about Kofi Cockburn making a sophomore leap. That I would fret over whether Ayo would make his return worthwhile and evolve into the best player in college basketball. As Underwood is fond of saying - these are some dudes, man. They went through 12 and 14 win seasons so they know what it's like to lose. I feel like that's what grounds this team and has kept them so focused during this weirdest of seasons.

To that end, I probably didn't enjoy this regular season journey as much as I should have. But man I sure enjoyed the hell out of this week.

So now we're going to finish the regular season ranked either 3rd or 4th in the AP poll (#4 if Michigan beats MSU again today and #3 if they should lose), and we are a stone cold lock for a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Seriously, put that in the bank. We could sleep through the Big Ten Tournament next week and that 1 seed is still secure. I mean talk about house money.

We have a double digit average victory margin in conference play and are top 7 in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom. We just won the most Big Ten conference games in school history. We're just damn good. I suppose the only thing left to do is keep those Flying Illini parallels rolling through March - but then set a new course come April.


+ Almost a year ago to the day, I covered what turned out to be the final game of last season - the win at the SFC against Iowa. After that game, the focus of my post-game article was Ayo Dosunmu. The conventional wisdom then was that it was likely to be Ayo's last game, and I wrote about what a privilege it was to be able to not only enjoy, but cover his Illini career as part of the media. Then he came back - and got even better. He transcended what was already a stellar two year Illinois career and elevated himself to a sure fire consensus All-American. He may not win college player of the year, but he's absolutely established himself as one of the all-time Illini greats. Hang that jersey.

+ Coaching matters. We've covered the malleability of Brad Underwood and his staff at great length in this space. We know all about his macro adjustments on both offense and defense - changes that have led to a 29-11 record in the Big Ten over the past two seasons. Those 29 wins over two seasons just happens to be a school record by the by. So with all that, games still can turn on the most micro of adjustments. EJ Liddell was flat winning this game for OSU in the second half. He had scored 10 of OSU's 12 points in a three minute stretch to put the Buckeyes up 68-64 with 3:48 to play. The Illinois staff made a simple defensive change and switched DMW onto Liddell. Neither he nor the Buckeyes scored again for the rest of the game.

+ As I wrote in my Rewind-Michigan post, this team got better during Ayo's injury. We aren't better without him, but we are better for him missing that time. The number one beneficiary - Andre Curbelo. The mercurial freshman hit a wall in the middle of the Big Ten season, but Ayo being out of the lineup allowed him to rekindle his magic. In the three games Ayo missed, Curbelo averaged 15 points/8 rebounds/3.5 assists. Even with Ayo back today, he flourished instead of fading - finishing with a 19/5/6 stat line (and just two turnovers!). Ayo was the closer again, but Curbelo was probably the game MVP. The guard rotation with Curbelo at this level is going to be a problem for any team we face in the postseason.

+ This was the first season in 15 years during which we did not ever fall out of the AP Top 25 poll. Our poll journey this season: 8-5-6-13-18-15-12-14-22-19-12-6-5-5-4. Again - this is what peaking looks like.

+ All the feels.


Illini_1105 on March 7, 2021 @ 07:07 AM

The orange guys are back. We are a legitimate program again; a desireable place to both work at and to play. Coach U has created a culture at this school the same way he speaks about the cultures of the programs he faces in the B10.

We love you, Coach U. Thank you for bringing us back, my sweet sweet prince

SectionII on March 7, 2021 @ 08:06 AM

So glad you were able to attend the last 3 games ... really appreciate your insight! on March 7, 2021 @ 10:28 AM

I know Dickie V Loves the Flying Illini as we all do from '89---BUT this group is Really Good. Love the Total Team Enthusiasm---and Love for Each Other---Great seeing AD, Josh Whitman there to Cheer Them On Too!!! Finally---as always---Great Writing!

mitchstevens on March 7, 2021 @ 11:57 AM

Walk-on - your post game reports are the best. Hope you are able to do a rewind and regular column for every Illini game through April.

Dr. Chim Richalds on March 7, 2021 @ 12:32 PM

Another great article Tyler. This team's resilience in tough moments has been truly special the past two conference seasons.

Also shoutout to Da'Monte for burying that 3. We've gotten used to it but the transition from not scoring in a full month last year to being one of the best shooters in the country is nothing short of incredible. He deserves so much credit for this season.

ktal on March 8, 2021 @ 06:34 PM

Good call. I still have him pegged in my mind as a defensive specialist, but his outside shot really has become "elite", as BU loves to say. I'm absolutely loving his success!!!!

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