Ayo Dosunmu wasn’t the only Illinois freshman who drew widespread raves last season. Lefty big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili has as much to do with the excitement surrounding the program as anyone.
The 6-9 Georgian — think Eurasia, not peaches — used a deft scoring touch and boundless charisma to wrap both arms around Illini fans in a delightful bear hug.
And here’s his message to them about the 2020 NCAA Tournament, which, if his team gets there, would mark the end of a demoralizing six-year drought.
“It’s not a question that we’ll get there,” he said. “In my mind, it’s 1,000%. We’re working so hard. We’ve got everybody coming back. I’m telling you, it’s not even a question.”
Bezhanishvili’s impact in games waxed and waned last season, but his “on” moments had to tantalize even those in Illini Nation who have taken a turn for the cynical. There was an early 22-point outing against Notre Dame and a gritty 20-point effort in the team’s first Big Ten win, against Minnesota. He kicked it up a few notches by dropping 35 in a victory over Rutgers and dominated with 26 in a Big Ten tournament win against Northwestern.
Dosunmu isn’t shy about forecasting a leap forward that culminates in a bid on Selection Sunday.
“We haven’t been there in six years,” he said, “so when we get there, we’re going to try to win it all. Lights-out — let’s play basketball.”
But Bezhanishvili, an offseason fixture at the Ubben practice facility in Champaign, is straight-up guaranteeing it. About the pressure to deliver that invites onto his own head? Please. This guy has seen a thing or two in his life.
“I don’t believe in pressure,” he said. “Pressure is, like, when you don’t have food on the table at home, when you’re trying to find the next meal, can’t sleep. Here, make the tournament or not? That’s not pressure. We’re just here working our ass off every day to be the best we can be. I’m not worried about anything. We know huge things are possible.”
Third-year coach Brad Underwood doesn’t cringe when told of his players’ comments. To the contrary, he puffs out his chest.
“It’s good,” he said. “Absolutely. Not just them saying it, but Illinois basketball needs an expectation of success, and they’re providing that. That’s why we all do this. If those two guys aren’t going to say it, who is? We should be a team that’s feared.”