The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois big man Dain Dainja enters transfer portal

James Hoeck
Redshirt junior forward/center Dain Dainja leaps in front of the hoop for a layup during the second half against Iowa at the State Farm Center on Feb. 24.

Redshirt junior center Dain Dainja entered the transfer portal on Monday. The 6-foot-9-inch 255-pound forward out of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, played two years with the Illini, which they won’t soon forget.

Dainja first committed to Baylor out of high school and was rated the No. 106 recruit in the country by 247 Sports. The Minnesota native elected to redshirt his freshman season, watching from the bench as Baylor cut down the national championship nets in 2021.

Dainja was lured to Champaign in the middle of the season. Forced to sit out another year, Dainja went to work with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher, and it paid off.

As he entered his redshirt sophomore season, Dainja was in the best shape of his life, ready to show the basketball world what he could do. The forward showed flashes during the tumultuous 2022-23 season, but most of all, he became a fan favorite.

Dainja started 21 out of 33 games for Illinois, averaging 9.5 points in 20.6 minutes per game. Chemistry and consistency issues for the team masked his first full year under head coach Brad Underwood, but he went back to work in his second offseason.

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Once again, he entered the season in better shape than the last. His workload was steady to begin the year, but concerns over defense and some early turnovers resulted in beloved Dainja falling out of the rotation and left in a similar spot to his second season at Baylor — just not seeing the court.

Still, the second-year Illini persevered and never let it get to him. Following consecutive two-minute performances against Maryland and Penn State in late February, Underwood made a change. Dainja was back in the rotation, and it was just what Illinois needed.

A spark off the bench, the forward didn’t skip a beat, scoring 17 points in his first two games on an efficient 7/12 from the field. However, paint scoring wasn’t all the Illini wanted when they reinserted him into the lineup, as he provided much-needed energy and glass work in the final month.

Entering each home game with an eruption from the crowd that rivaled only that of Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins, Dainja always kept fans on the edge of their seats. The buzz fueled plenty of runs down the final stretch — most memorably in the Big Ten quarterfinals and the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament.

No game sums up the potential of Dainja more than the latter, where he put up 21 points, eight boards and two blocks on 9/9 from the field. When Dainja entered for an extended stretch in the second half, Illinois was engaged in a battle with 14-seeded Morehead State, but that changed as soon as he walked onto the court.

A quick layup tied the game at 43, and it was off to the races. In the blink of an eye, Dainja led a 43-19 run as Illinois ran away with its first win of the tournament. Just 11 days later, Illinois fans are watching him again, but this time as he leaves the program in search of a new one.

He will surely be sought after for his final season of eligibility at the collegiate level and will forever be cemented in Illinois basketball history as a Big Ten champion and big-time contributor to the Elite Eight squad.



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About the Contributors
Ben Fader
Ben Fader, Sports Editor
Hello, I’m Ben! I’m a junior at Illinois and assistant sports editor at The Daily Illini. I’m majoring in journalism and minoring in communications and recreation, sport and tourism. This is my third year with The Daily Illini, and I can’t wait to produce some amazing work. Feel free to contact me at my email below with questions or concerns, or if you just want to talk sports!
James Hoeck
James Hoeck, Photo Editor
Heyo! I am James Hoeck, a third-year undergraduate student in photography with a minor in media. I have been a part of Illini Media for two years, starting back in fall 2021. I hold the position of Photo Editor here at The Daily Illini. I also work as Photo Editor for Illini Media’s Illio Yearbook. There is a good chance you will see me out and about on campus taking photos for my personal work or for The DI and/or Illio! If you want to check out more of my work, visit my socials linked below.
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