Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) is swarmed by fans after the team’s game against Michigan State.

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) is swarmed by fans after the team’s game against Michigan State.

AP Photos

The Verdict: How Illinois fared in its crucial 10-month stretch

Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood and Joe Henricksen break down how things went for the Illini over the last 10 months.

A little over 10 months ago I wrote “Why the next 10 months are Illinois basketball’s biggest in decades.”

I asked for forgiveness from Illinois fans as I was sure they had read and heard that line in some way, shape or form a time or two (or six or seven) over the years. But I believed it to be true this time. 

I swiftly went through the negatives, including: Illinois had gone six years without a NCAA Tournament appearance, four years without even cracking a Top 25 ranking and suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 41 years. They were 61-73 the past four seasons overall and 24-50 in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-2020 season. 

I also noted how relevancy matters and that this was the closest the Illinois basketball program has come to dipping into total irrelevancy in over four decades. 

I went on to provide six reasons why the next 10 months were so important and why, this time, it was true. 

Here is a summary of what I wrote back in June of 2019, how the 10 months shaped up for Illinois basketball and how coach Brad Underwood felt about meeting each of those six expectations. 

Reason No. 1: Maximizing Ayo Dosunmu

What was said then (June, 2019)…

While watching Meyers Leonard of the Portland Trail Blazers torch the Golden State Warriors in a NBA playoff game last month –– if you missed it the 7-footer went off for 25 points in the first half of a Western Conference Semifinal game and finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds –– it was pointed out that was the most points he had scored in any game since his high school days at Robinson. 

Why that’s a big a big deal is this: Illinois never was able to maximize having a future NBA player on its roster. 

No, Leonard isn’t some NBA star. But he was a first-round draft pick with difference-making size, athleticism and an impressive pedigree as a consensus top 35 player in the country coming out of high school. 

Yet the nature of the beast in basketball, especially with big men, is that many players bolt for the NBA early, maybe before they’re really ready and well before they were able to make a full impact at the college level. That was Meyers Leonard. 

And though no fault of really anyone, Illinois was not able to ever truly reap the benefit of having a talent like Leonard.

Leonard, a late-blooming talent with a monster ceiling in high school, averaged just 8.2 minutes a game as a freshman at Illinois. He followed it up with a very nice sophomore season in which he averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and nearly two blocks in 32 minutes a game. Just when he was turning the corner and set to make a leap into potential dominating college big man –– Poof! –– he was gone. 

Remember that 2012-2013 Illinois team? The overachieving one led by Brandon Paul and coached by Groce? The one that captured a Maui Invite title in November, finished with 23 wins and won a game in the NCAA Tournament in Groce’s first season? Now imagine a ready-to-dominate Leonard on that team as a returning junior? How much better would that Illinois team have been with Leonard?

The Meyers Leonard history lesson is simply to show that Illinois is in position to fully take advantage of its next NBA draft pick in Dosunmu. The 6-5 point guard could have left for the NBA, kept his fingers crossed that he could sneak into the first round of what is considered to be one of the worst NBA drafts in history, and Illinois would again have missed out on getting the most out of a future pro. 

Illinois likely gets Dosunmu for one more year after he put together a freshman season in which he averaged 13.8 points, four rebounds and 3.3 assists while playing 31 minutes a game. This is stating the obvious, but the return of Dosunmu for one more season was critical for the Illinois rebuild. 

Now it’s a matter of taking advantage of arguably the most talented Illini and certainly its highest profile player since Dee Brown left in 2006. Taking advantage of having the dynamic Dosunmu means playing itself off the bubble, winning 20-plus games, finishing in the top half of the rugged Big Ten and garnering headlines with a NCAA Tournament berth. 

Because if you don’t? And the program misses the NCAA Tournament for a (gulp!) seventh straight year? And Dosunmu bolts for the NBA? And an eighth straight year without a NCAA bid is looming without Dosunmu? … Well, you get the point. 

10 months later…

While Dosunmu could decide to return before the June 3 NCAA early entrant withdrawal deadline, he’s poised to leave Illinois after two years.

Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists a game, numbers that earned him first-team All-Big Ten recognition. More importantly, he made shots and plays at big moments that propelled this team from being a “bubble” team to a NCAA Tournament lock. 

He became a bigger name with a larger persona and a true representative of Illinois basketball. Underwood’s program and culture fully benefited from having Dosunmu this past year, even if he’s not projected to be a NBA first-round pick. 

All that was missing was an opportunity for Dosunmu to enhance all of that –– and his own personal stock –– with a NCAA Tournament run or signature performance in March. 

Underwood on the importance of maximizing Dosunmu’s value:

“I think any good coach is going to find a way to maximize his best player, where he can ultimately not just score the most points but impact the game at both ends of the court. He’s been an impactful guy to our culture –– way beyond his numbers and the big shots. Way beyond. And have an impact in the locker-room. We found a lot of ways to utilize his talents and personality. He was able to help our team, our program grow in a lot of areas. I wouldn’t be a very good coach if I didn’t try and empower him and put him in those places.”

Reason No. 2: The critical recruiting class of 2020

What was said then (June, 2019)… 

Recruiting changes the more distance there is from any type of success and the sell of being new and different wears off. The recruiting, particularly the recruiting pitch, gets more and more difficult. We saw this with John Groce and his staff.

Groce was the energy guy who had plenty to sell. He could sell what he did at Ohio and then what he did in his first season at Illinois. And like every coach taking over for a fired one, he could sell how things were going to be fresh and different. 

But the longer it went without a tournament appearance and then falling short in the recruitments of Quentin Snider, Demetrius Jackson, Cliff Alexander, Juwan Evans, Jalen Brunson and others, the tougher the sell became.

Brad Underwood and his staff are entering year three of the rebuild. They had the “things are going to be different” selling point following the Groce firing. Underwood had the “look what I did at Stephen F. Austin” and the NCAA Tournament appearance at Oklahoma State as highlights when he rode into Champaign. 

This is why this upcoming season –– and whatever prospects Illinois lands over the next 10 months –– is so pivotal. You need selling points. And if you’re going into year four without a tournament bid and without your best player (Dosunmu), the sell becomes a bit hollow. 

This next group Illinois brings in, quite frankly, needs to be the best of the three recruiting classes this staff will have brought in so far. No pressure there. But there are 10 months to do it. 

With a couple of years to build the foundation and culture, establish relationships, perfect the pitch and be fully invested as Illini, it’s time to land the next wave to follow what has been a nice foundation-building group.

The bad news is Illinois doesn’t have a commitment yet for the Class of 2020. The good news is they are right there with a number of talented recruits and, more importantly, the staff showed it can find a monster piece hidden under a rock. Can Underwood and his staff unearth another Bezhanishvili? No one could have imagined the impact this under-recruited prospect would have on the Illinois program. 

So when/if Illinois secures a commitment from a two-star or a three-star rather than a four-star or five-star, pause and think Bezhanishvili. Underwood has earned the benefit of the doubt with that one.

But securing two or three consensus top 100 talents in this recruiting class, in year three, sets the table going forward, even with Dosunmu’s probable departure. 

You stack enough quality recruiting classes on top of one another and you’re bound to be good, right? 

10 months later…

Illinois has what Rivals calls the 17th ranked recruiting class in the country and 247sports has tabbed it as the 16th best. And, yes, they landed not only two top 100 prospects but two in the top 50, including one the City/Suburban Hoops Report believes is vastly underrated nationally in point guard Andre Curbelo out of New York. 

They held on to Morgan Park star Adam Miller, who they invested so much time and resources into since the day the staff was hired. Miller, who will bring much-needed perimeter shooting to a team that struggled from the three-point line, is also a highly-regarded local product Illinois has missed on in the past. 

Morgan Park’s Adam Miller, white jersey, dunks and draws a foul from Tinley Park’s AaReyon Munir-Jones.

Morgan Park’s Adam Miller, white jersey, dunks and draws a foul from Tinley Park’s AaReyon Munir-Jones.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

The number of high-profile local players the Illini have nabbed after Richmond and Leonard and before Miller and Dosunmu? The list is short. Really short. The best were Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn, the No. 57 ranked player in the Class of 2013, and consensus top 70 player Malcolm Hill of Belleville East. Both had outstanding college careers.

With the trio of Curbelo, Miller and the late-blooming but promising 6-9 Coleman Hawkins, Illinois accomplished what it needed to in the Class of 2020. 

Underwood on the critical recruiting Class of 2020:

“I think every class is critical. I think this one does show what time provides, That time provides you a chance to build relationships. Your first year on a job you don’t recruit; you fill scholarships. This class is obviously coming off a ranking, a good season, so bringing in these pieces are big. I think recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and we are going to work really, really hard at it.” 

Reason No. 3: A chance to further the identity

What was said then (June, 2019)… 

Say what you will about anything Illinois has done under Underwood. But no one can say he hasn’t established a clear identity. And this coming year is the perfect time to cement that identity by complementing it with on-the-court success. 

Regardless of the wins and losses thus far, Underwood’s Illini are recognized as a team and program that gets after it, exudes toughness, plays with an intensity and, whether you like it or not, has established a certain defensive style and system that fits the program’s personality –– or at least what the head coach believes it should be. There have been minor changes and alterations here and there, but Underwood hasn’t wavered. He’s stuck with his approach through it all thus far. 

There is something to be said for that and how it resonates. Basketball people –– from avid fans to opposing coaches to prospective recruits to high school and AAU coaches to the players who are a part of it and the media that talks about it –– know for certain what Illinois basketball is going to be about. They can see it and, as a result, something that really isn’t tangible actually is.

10 months later…

The tinkering and alterations continued into this past season, particularly on the defensive end where there was an obvious shift in scheme. The relentless, high-pressured defensive attack that was implemented the first two years of the Underwood regime led to a whole lot of layups and even more free throws from opposing teams. 

Change was needed. The defensive principles changed. So did the results as Illinois made a dramatic improvement defensively in nearly all of the metrics. 

That’s all a credit to Underwood. 

But whether Illinois was scuffling through the first two Underwood years or while the Illini took a major step forward this past season, through it all there was a constant: Illinois played hard and competed at a high level. From offensive and defensive changes to personnel adjustments, the calling card for Illinois basketball all three years has been how hard Underwood’s teams competed. 

Yes, there is a lapse here and there over the course of a 30-game season. That’s inevitable. But it’s been very rare where you could pin a loss on a team not playing hard or not competing. 

Players like DaMonte Williams, Andres Feliz, Kipper Nichols and Giorgi Bezhanishvili weren’t stars on this past year’s team. But they exuded all that Underwood loves in a player –– toughness, competitiveness and unselfishness. 

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland.

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland.

AP Photos

Then you take a player like Dosunmu. Is he a generational talent, a lottery pick like Deron Williams or a Big Ten MVP? No. But he’s a player who in just two years has promptly helped change the perception of Illinois basketball in many ways. 

Underwood on the chance to further the identity:

“All we strive to do was to have an identity of what our opponents think about us. When you think of Illinois basketball, what is it that you think about? If that’s the first thing that comes to mind, playing hard, that’s pretty good. At the highest level you’re not going to win if you don’t do that, so you have to play hard. That’s been a staple, something we have tried to build our culture on –– hard work.”

Reason No. 4: The biggest offseason development in years

What was said then (June, 2019)…

One of the hallmarks of a great basketball “program” is individual player development. It’s underrated, really, and not talked about enough. It’s how and why certain programs who don’t recruit top 10 or top 15 recruiting classes still make regular NCAA Tournament appearances and crack Top 25 polls annually.

This will be a significant year –– again, year three for this coaching staff –– in seeing individual player improvement and growth. 

Every coaching staff in America believes they develop their players. I have yet to hear any coach or staff say, “We really need to recruit at a super high level and get superior talent because we just don’t do a very good job of developing and making players better.”

The early signs are positive with Underwood and this staff.

Don’t underestimate the improvement of Illinois’ top two players, Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili, in just nine months on campus. 

Yes, a lot of credit goes to the individual players as these two are ultra-gym rats and are tireless workers. But I don’t think people realize the jump Dosunmu made from the end of his senior year at Morgan Park to his freshman season at Illinois. The jump-shot itself was like night and day. Dosunmu was more impactful as a freshman than I expected –– and that’s coming from someone who watched him play for five years before he headed to Champaign. 

And Bezhanishvili? Good Lord. One can only imagine the improvement he made from last June through the end of the season in March. 

Again, it’s a monster offseason and imperative these improvements take place to enhance the opportunities for this team in 2019-2020.

10 months later…

There were some dips, most notably junior Trent Frazier’s numbers. His scoring, assists and shooting numbers were all significantly down. 

Tevian Jones didn’t show much growth before he bolted and transferred out, while Bezhanishvili went from some big-time freshman numbers to some very modest ones, most notably with his scoring and field goal percentage. But that had more to do with adjusting to a new role and playing with Cockburn. 

But every single player in a program doesn’t develop at the same rate or even always pan out. That’s how college basketball is today, especially in this day and age of the transfer. Overall, the positives still outweigh the negatives when it comes to player development within the program. 

And we’ll start with one name: Kofi. 

I asked this question 10 months ago: What can the staff do development wise with 6-10, 300-pound Kofi Cockburn in six months?

They did wonders. 

What Cockburn accomplished in preparation for the 2019-2020 season from a body and conditioning standpoint was remarkable. Cockburn clearly took everything the Illinois coaching staff and strength and conditioning guru Adam Fletcher provided him and ran with it from the day he stepped foot in Champaign. 

Yes, Cockburn was a rare 7-foot piece of clay for a staff to mold. But I don’t think people have any idea of where Cockburn was at from a physical standpoint during his senior year of high school.

That massive transformation, along with some simple improvements in understanding the game, led to a highly productive and visible freshman season. Cockburn was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year while averaging 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds a game and leading the team with 44 blocks. 

While Alan Griffin transferred, the 6-5 guard made obvious strides in the right direction. He went from shooting 30 percent from three to 40 percent and upped his freshman average of 2.8 points and 1.6 rebounds a game to 8.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. 

Andres Feliz’s numbers went up in every single category from year one to year two while playing relatively the same amount of minutes. Dosunmu’s rise continued. 

And even players like DaMonte Williams grew and developed, albeit in a different way. The numbers didn’t spike, but the coaching staff developed a player who fully embraced his do-the-little-things role and shined in that role. That also falls on the positive development side of a player. 

Underwood on the offseason development:

“Our offseason development was phenomenal. I don’t know how they rank strength coaches, but that’s where it starts, right there with Fletch [Adam Fletcher]. You look at Ayo gaining 18 or 19 pounds. What he did with Kofi in a short amount of time. Trent Frazier can squat the building. It starts there. That gives them the confidence mentally to take it to the court. You couple that with experience and now you really start to develop a good player. To our guys’ credit they buy in and work at it. We are well defined as a staff with what we teach and how we develop guys.”

Reason No. 5: A time to re-energize the fan base

What was said then (June, 2019)…

It’s been awhile since Illinois entered a season with expectations. We’re talking legitimate expectations. Even with seven players on the roster who are either freshmen or sophomores, the expectations will be there for the 2019-2020 season. And that’s a good thing. 

The true Illinois basketball fan is so stinking hungry for success. 

The return of Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili is reason enough to get excited. That’s a monster tandem to build around. 

Frazier, the scoring talent with occasional basketball hiccups, is a junior veteran set to surpass 1,000 career points early in the season. Hard-nosed guard Andres Feliz got his feet wet at the Division I level and by the end of the season was swimming in the deep end of the Big Ten. Freshman behemoth Cockburn brings desperately-needed front court depth and size. And while not certain, Illinois fans can hope the combination of Griffin and Jones can make an impact as sophomores. 

On paper, that seems to be just enough talent to get the job done. And this wide-ranging job includes re-energizing the fan base. 

There is no question the fan base and interest, to put it mildly, has stagnated. Well, these next 10 months are crucial in re-energizing a fan base that, quite frankly, hasn’t been through this much fandom pain since the 1970s. And that was before everything was so greatly magnified by TV, cable, sports websites, recruiting rankings and social media. 

10 months later…

This one is a resounding, “Yes: Goal accomplished.” 

For starters, the season mattered. It mattered in November and every month after through the start of the Big Ten Tournament before Covid-19 shut everything down. There was something on the line in every game that was played and a reason for fans to invest. 

It’s easy to forget now but that was the norm for so many years with this program and its fans –– decades, really. But not of late.

In 2018-2019 Illinois was 4-12 in early January and was basically eliminated from any at-large bid with two full months to play. The year before Illinois was 0-8 in the Big Ten by mid-January before the final two months were played out with little interest for fans. 

This year the fans were rejuvenated. They believed again. There was positive dialogue and discussion regarding Illinois basketball. The State Farm Center was buzzing on several occasions and was sold out five times and just a 100 or so short of a sellout in a matchup with Nebraska. 

The media coverage, both locally and nationally, was at least present again. The success, as always, led to expanded exposure –– to fans, particularly in the Chicago area, and to high school coaches and recruits across the state.

Underwood on re-energizing the fan base:

“There is no doubt [it re-energized the fan base]. I have said we have the best fans in the country. Along with that we have the most educated fans. They reap the rewards of a team that has grown, matured. To be excited, to be playing for a Big Ten championship late in the season and being a ranked team, a NCAA tournament team … It’s so fun to see everyone’s swagger back and heads held high. Probably one of the things that makes me as happy as anything is we are getting this thing to where the fans get to see that and experience it first hand.” 

Reason No. 6: A chance to be relevant again

What was said then (June, 2019) … 

Back to relevancy. 

Relevancy matters so much and in so many ways. If there is one abnormal adjective used to describe Illinois basketball now –– and never before –– during this string of six straight years without a tournament appearance its apathy. An apathetic audience sets in at some point. 

The diehard fan knows but the average Illinois fan or basketball observer has forgotten where this program was for the better part of 30 or so years. 

Here is a quick reminder of a stretch of 33 pretty glorious seasons spanning from the 1980-1981 season through the 2012-2013 season:

▪︎ 25 NCAA Tournament berths and two trips to the Final Four, including a 25-year stretch from 1983 through 2007 in which Illinois made the NCAA Tournament in 21 of the 25 seasons. For the most part a NCAA Tournament bid was a foregone conclusion at Illinois for a quarter of a century. 

▪︎ An average of 22 wins a year, including just three losing seasons in 33 years. 

▪︎ 10-plus Big Ten wins a season 25 out of 33 years –– and only six seasons below .500 in Big Ten play during that time. 

▪︎ Ranked in the AP poll in 25 of those 33 seasons.

That’s relevancy. And on a national stage. For the better part of three-plus decades.

Illinois needs to make itself relevant again. Not with a newly refurbished arena, a large increase in pay for the coaching staff or plans to do a major renovation to the basketball practice facility. Those are all great and needed. But it needs to be relevant again in with wins and rankings and success while steering clear of the abyss. We’re talking right now. In the next 10 months. It’s there for them. 

There needs to be college basketball conversation that includes Illinois. The Chicago media needs to care again. Basketball people need to have a reason to talk Illinois basketball in gyms across the state and city this winter. 

There needs to be important games played in January and February. NCAA Tournament hopes for Illinois have been dashed by December the past two seasons. 

And, most importantly, there needs to be a camera at Ubben on Selection Sunday with the players and coaches in a row of chairs and Illini personnel, boosters and fans behind them, waiting (not hoping) for Greg Gumbel to say something like, “Playing in Omaha as the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Regional will be the Fighting Illini. Illinois returns to the tournament for the first time since 2013.” 

And then the CBS camera locks in on Giorgi doing some dance with a big smile. 

All of that is relevancy. All of that helps erase some of the bitterness of the past few seasons. All of that is a boon to recruiting and sets the tone for future classes in 2021 and 2022. All of that is confirmation that, yes indeed, Illinois basketball is clearly headed in the right direction and far away from apathy. 

10 months later...

With its strong finish to the regular season (5-1 down the stretch of Big Ten play) and an overall record of 21-10, Illinois was just a few days from being part of Selection Sunday and all the glory that comes with it in the college basketball world. 

Sadly, it’s a team that was on the verge of ending the Illinois NCAA Tournament drought but one that didn’t officially receive the bid that did the trick. That stings. That takes away so much of what transpired over the first four months of the season. 

Yes, there was a bit of a slow start. Maybe the double-digit loss to Arizona, the embarrassing home loss to Miami, falling in gut-wrenching fashion at Maryland and the bitter rivalry defeat to Missouri was forgotten with the Big Ten run. 

But there were wins over ranked Michigan, Penn State and Iowa teams. That’s relevant. 

By mid-January Illinois was ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2014. They were ranked for eight weeks of the season, including as high as No. 19. Illinois finished ranked No. 21 in the country in the final AP poll. That’s being relevant. 

Illinois was playing for first place in the Big Ten late in the season, had a first-team all-Big Ten selection and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. That’s being relevant. 

It’s still a long way from being Flying Illini, Bill Self years and 2005 relevancy. There is another big step to take for the program to get to the next level. But the 2019-2020 season was a monumental and imperative step in trying to get back there.

Underwood on the importance of being relevant and whether Illinois basketball is relevant again:

“Absolutely. No doubt. 100 percent. Our job is to get it [program] back to where it was. It’s our job to get it back there. There is no shortcutting the process. It’s nice to see that arena packed, playing for something in the last week of the season in the best conference in the country. That speaks volumes as to where this program is at now. Are we satisfied? No, because we didn’t win it. The progress is something to feel really good about.”

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