Under Dosunmu, Underwood’s experience, Illinois remains level-headed before top-5 matchup

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Ayo Dosunmu goes for a layup during the game against Chicago State on Thursday. The Illini won the game 97-38.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When Ayo Dosunmu returned to Illinois for his junior season, his message was clear. He had “unfinished business.”

Dosunmu took Illinois from a bottom-feeder in the Big Ten his freshman year, to a top-four team in the league his sophomore year. The Illini were on pace for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. However, COVID-19 struck, and the tournament was canceled. Dosunmu’s quest for a tournament run technically starts in March, but top-five showdowns on ESPN are a good assessment for where this group is at and are a part of the reason the Chicago native elected to return.

“This is the kind of game I envisioned playing for this program. Big games like this,” Dosunmu said of Wednesday night’s matchup against No. 2 Baylor. “I consider it a legacy game for the whole program. These are the games you want to play in. These are the games you dream of playing.”

For a large chunk of the Illinois roster, going from being the underdog to the front-runner is a stark change. But Dosunmu is used to being the hunted. Playing at Morgan Park high school, the Dosunmu-led Mustangs were constantly ranked in the top five. In his senior season, Dosunmu played in many big games against highly-ranked opponents, eventually cultivating a state championship run.

Dosunmu also got that experience while playing on the USA U18 team in the Fiba Americas Championship. Playing for the habitual champs, Dosunmu gained experience as being the hunted. In practice, he passes along messages to his teammates like “seize the moment.” A game like Wednesday night might intimidate some, but Dosunmu has been primed for moments like these.

“USA…when you got those three letters on the front of your jersey, you get everyone’s best shot no matter who you are playing against,” Dosunmu said. “Being the hunted, I really took notes on how to prepare and come out every game, and be on top.”

Head coach Brad Underwood noticed Dosunmu’s focus. He loves when his junior guard is in “that state of mind.” Underwood knows Dosunmu relishes these moments and exudes confidence that carries over to the rest of his roster.

Underwood has coached in his fair share of big games. From Southland conference tournament championships with Stephen F. Austin to an NCAA Tournament round of 32 game with Oklahoma State. He’s excited to coach in the Jimmy V Classic, given his involvement in Coaches vs. Cancer. To this day, he remembers Jimmy Valvano running around the court after North Carolina State won the 1983 national championship.

As excited as he is, he’s not overhyping this early December matchup. Underwood has bigger goals in mind.

“I try to keep it all in perspective,” Underwood said. “It won’t be there if we’re in a Final Four. Let’s put it that way. That will trump it all.”

It’s been 16 years since Illinois was ranked in the top five. 16 years since Illinois won its last top-five matchup against a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team. The expectations surrounding this current team, mirror that of the 04-05 team. Underwood and Dosunmu are not thinking back to that — but rather looking towards the road ahead. Their experiences in big moments have them prepared for Wednesday night.

That Wake Forest win will be in the minds of Illini fans. Underwood had no relation to it, but like the 04-05 team, he strives to make an imprint on the national stage as they did.

“I hope we have the same outcome,” Underwood said.

@BrandonSimberg