But after watching the Fighting Illini Football spring game and seeing the 2021 Big Ten Championship banner (don’t @ me i’m just using the language they used to describe the banner) I’m finally ready to come back with a basketball post-mortem because you know what? Illinois Basketball made a triumphant return to its historic domain on the outskirts of the promised land over the last two years.
When the COVID outbreak suddenly cut basketball short last season, Illinois was among the hottest teams in the country and carried that into its first season ranked wire-to-wire since at least 2005-2006. “First X since 2005” or “best X since 2005” was a theme this year, but it started early as the #5 Fighting Illini had mid-aughts levels of hype heading into an early season battle with #2 eventual national champs Baylor.
Stomping the life out of Duke on the road for 40 minutes was a truly cathartic and rapturous experience, and I’d highly recommend it. The Illini, however, responded by losing 2 of 3, getting out-hustled by Mizzou and out-flopped by Rutgers.
The next three games were Big Ten wins of varying quality, followed by a hilarious game against Northwestern where they trailed by 15 at halftime and outscored the Basketcats 53-13 in the second half.
Just like the last time the Illini had made a statement, though, they responded by losing two home games to Maryland and Ohio State to abruptly cut the celebration short. While there was still a path to winning the most Big Ten games, this and some Michigan game cancellations cost them the all-important Win Percentage Title.
Then, they won 15 of their next 16 games, finishing with 16 Big Ten wins and a Big Ten tournament title.
I don’t remember what happened next.
However, I can’t say enough about Ayo Dosunmu, he of two triple-doubles, a 20+pt/5reb/5ast average and countless clutch moments.
It’s not just that Ayo was the best player in the league in a resurgent year for Illinois.* It’s more than that. The fantasy of every downtrodden basketball program, especially ones near recruiting hotbeds, is for the kind of supreme talent that usually goes to Kentucky, UNC, Duke or Kansas to stay home and lead his home state program to glory. I’ve lost count of the recruits that had Illinois in consideration about whom I’ve said “that guy can go play a year or two in and out of the Kansas starting lineup and be yet another Kansas NBA guy that KU fans probably still rag on, or he could come to Illinois, raise a banner and be remembered forever.”
Not only did Ayo Dosunmu do that, he literally said in his commitment announcement that instead of going to a basketball factory, he intended to lead a rebuild at Illinois that would result in a title contender.
He not only said that, but actually did it. Any Illini fan who has a more beloved player than Ayo Dosunmu, barring personal connections, is blinded by affinity for the past. It’s a fever dream, and it actually came true.
I believe this was the best team Brad Underwood is likely to assemble at Illinois. That’s not to say he’ll never go farther than the second round; worse teams have gone farther. I still believe this was one of the 10 best teams in the country, and yes, by that measure, Loyola was a disaster of epic proportions. We’ve been through this. I don’t want to do it anymore.
But when I return to the State Farm Center, that banner is going to be there. This team raised the first banner for Illinois in over 15 years, and no matter what Jordan Bohannon thinks, it’s there to stay.
As we speak, Illinois is in a bidding war trying to keep assistants Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman, with Josh Whitman actually going so far as to offer Antigua a contract that would make him by far the highest-paid assistant in college basketball. Illinois is throwing elite money around to preserve this thing, and if the promise of “you can cheat freely at Kentucky” is just too much for Antigua to resist, Illinois has made a statement about how serious they are. Andre Curbelo is the future of basketball, and he plays at Illinois.
It’s finally happened, folks. In the most Tim Sinclair voice I can muster, THIS...is ILLINOIS BASKETBALL!
*look i don’t want to hear any of this shit about loyola confirming that garza is the greatest, because you know what? at least scheming an entire defense around ayo was actually necessary to beat illinois. oregon’s gameplan for garza was “just ignore him and keep scoring” so blow me