Illinois Basketball’s recent resurgence is no longer just a Champaign-Urbana storyline, it’s starting to enter the national zeitgeist. But, here are the stories that everyone knows:
Ayo Dosunmu is a killer, from Chicago, a future NBA player, and is the face of the Illinois basketball turnaround.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili has an awe-inspiring story from his tumultuous childhood in Georgia (the country), is the most entertaining personality since…?, and is defying his recruiting ranking to a ridiculous degree.
What only the truly tied in also see is the way Brad Underwood’s culture has finally taken root, and the teams buy-in has allowed everyone to own their individual role and knock it out of the park.
I say culture, because it’s not just Trent Frazier selflessly moving off the ball and expending ridiculous amounts of energy hounding the opposing point guard on defense, yet still sniping from three and averaging 18.3 points over the last four games. That’s obvious enough to the casual onlooker. I want to also accentuate the seldom used Samba Kane standing from the bench, jumping up and down, pointing out things to the guys on the floor, and then, celebrating wins as part of the team. For the past decade, we’ve seen the guys that don’t play enough pouting through the game and becoming locker room malcontents that submarine the team’s culture. It doesn’t seem that person exists anymore, and it’s refreshing to watch, even in a season without NCAA Tournament aspirations.
At the very top of this, credit needs to be given to seniors Aaron Jordan and Adonis De La Rosa, as well as mercurial junior Kipper Nichols. Any one of them could have gone into a shell earlier in the year, and played for themselves, or pouted in practice while blaming the coaching staff for not putting them in a better position to show off their talent. Instead, they did something really hard for scholarship worthy athletes; they bought into their roles and positively sacrificed for the eventual turnaround they saw coming. As upperclassmen, they’ve commanded the respect from the younger kids getting the headlines, and showed them the ropes. That matters, and it’s been a while since Illinois has had that type of locker room.
Most of us in their shoes would have searched our names on Twitter, got mad, got sour, and not played for the greater good of the program. From all reports, these guys are great program guys, and have contributed so much more than their upperclassman numbers might say. If this train continues to roll, and Illinois does get back to fighting for conference championships and tourney runs, I want to see them sitting front row back at State Farm Center.
I mentioned Samba before, but the other newcomers have done the same — Alan Griffin, Tevian Jones, and Andres Feliz as well. They were the best players on their teams just a year ago, and now have to learn all over again how to work and grow their game, and grow into the system. Check out Feliz, who just a year ago was going for 20 points a night and getting a green light on offense. Now, he’s banging bodies with opposing players to draw charges, and hounding the other teams’ best guards. That’s a quick 180 in expectations, and he’s completely owning it.
And it’s not that easy, Griffin and Jones were the centerpieces of Illinois fans’ fears because fans almost grew accustomed to guys that didn’t arrive as instant stars looking elsewhere for “greener” pastures. That paper mâché guard down in Missouri is still taking to social media to whine about his role last year. Compare his conduct to Griffin or Jones when they’re not in the game; one pouted and became a distraction, the other two keep working and are engaged and encouraging. And they’re going to be huge pieces of this thing for years to come. And they’re going to carry that established culture and teach others.
When Underwood said he wasn’t building a team, but a program, this is what he meant. 13 guys can’t all be making their way into NBA Mock Drafts or Big Ten Network features. But 13 guys can all work towards the same goal, and on the good teams that stay in the tournament year-after-year, that’s what you’ll find.