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Illinois has all it needs for a banner season — except for the one thing it can’t control

It’s awful to think that players’ dreams, fans’ hopes and a potentially glorious time of winning at a basketball-mad school might be rolled into a ball and shot into a trash can by a virus that hasn’t the slightest sense of sentimentality.

With Ayo Dosunmu back, Illinois has championship potential.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Not to put the cart before the horse or anything, but Illinois’ basketball team is winning the Big Ten this coming season. Oh, and then making it to the Final Four. But why stop there? The Illini aren’t. I guess what I’m trying to say is that they’re winning the NCAA Tournament for the first time since, you know, ever.

But don’t take my word for it. Just listen to their gaga fans, some of whom may be cleverly disguised as local media members.

The team’s best player in 15 years, 2019-20 All-Big Ten guard Ayo Dosunmu, revealed Friday that he’s out of the NBA Draft and heading back to school for his junior season. The team’s best big man in longer than that, 2019-20 Big Ten freshman of the year Kofi Cockburn, announced the same a day later.

The collective response from Illini Nation can be summed up as: “We’re going to Disney World!”

A week after the death of Hall of Fame coach Lou Henson, it was a reason to celebrate. And celebrate Illini Nation did, particularly on Twitter, a platform known for nothing if not level-headed reasoning, predictions and proclamations.

Look, I get it. The Illini were one of the hardest-playing teams in college basketball last season and would’ve been in the Big Dance for the first time since 2013 if not for the coronavirus outbreak putting sports on a sudden, painful hold. Now they get their best guys back along with Morgan Park guard Adam Miller and the rest of an enticing class of newcomers. They’ll be a top 10 team nationally in the preseason. It’s the most exciting time for Illini fans since the days of Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head and the 2005 national runners-up.

Through-the-roof expectations can be hard to deal with, though. College basketball is littered with examples of teams — like Northwestern a few years back — that couldn’t handle them. All sports, at all levels, are.

“It won’t bother me, and I’m going to make sure it doesn’t bother our guys,” coach Brad Underwood said. “I think the one thing that happens is you’ve got to tune out all the outside noise.”

Indeed, the noise is one thing. Of course, there’s a far clearer threat to the 2020-21 Illini, and it’s the same one all sports — all of us — are contending with.

It’s the same one of which Cubs president Theo Epstein recently said, and said ominously well: “The virus is the only thing in control right now.”

It’s just plain awful to think that Dosunmu’s and Cockburn’s championship dreams, Illini fans’ fervent hopes and a potentially glorious time of winning at a basketball-mad school might all be rolled into a ball and shot into a trash can by a virus that shows up whenever and wherever it can and hasn’t the slightest sense of sentimentality.

Nobody deserves this insidious brand of worry, but it surrounds and envelops sports these days and has a place in any honest discussion of any game, any season, any team, any goal.

I feel compelled now to acknowledge sports’ modest place in a pandemic. Even if it’s a tiny bit wearisome for a snarky scribe to couch seemingly every topic, every discussion, every thought about sports in a broader context of public health, it’s probably an obligation to continue doing so. People are struggling. People are suffering. People are dying.

No college basketball? In the big picture, no big deal.

For a supposed refuge from the harsh realities of life, though, sports is having a hard time holding up its end of the bargain. The Cubs are getting ready for a road trip through Missouri, home to a Cardinals team that is upside-down with COVID-19 cases and a quarantining process in Milwaukee that just won’t quit. The White Sox’ much-anticipated “Field of Dreams” game, scheduled for Aug. 13 in the cornfields of Dyersville, Iowa, has been called off.

Baseball’s Marlins are the poster team — among pro teams, that is — for the spread of the virus. College football, its season in dire peril, is a petri dish of trouble. Illinois alone has had at least 18 football players test positive since returning for workouts in June, the school announced, and the Illini are nothing special in this regard.

So, yes, it would be mighty nice to see the Illini basketball season, and all the intoxicating success it might bring, play out.

Dosunmu, the former Morgan Park star, declared his comeback plans in a slickly produced video. In it, he’s on an outdoor court in Bronzeville, talking to himself as he gets up shots.

“First-round draft pick,” he says.

“Rookie of the year.”

But it’s only a tease.

“Final Four,” he later says.

“National championship.”

He has business to finish. Illini lovers have their hearts set on it.