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Illinois Basketball has turned the corner

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Where did this team come from?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois’ biggest win in six years and I missed it. Well, kind of.

As the final minutes began to tick down at the State Farm Center, I wasn’t anywhere near the action. Instead, I was pacing nervously throughout a bar. Miles removed from the action, but it didn’t matter. The energy both on the court and from the crowd were enough to convince me that I was covering it.

The seconds wound down on Illinois’ most impressive upset since Tyler Griffey sent in the layup that knocked off then-No. 1 Indiana back in 2013. But how did we get there? Every player who saw the floor tonight contributed in some way. It was the most complete performance of the Underwood tenure all the way from Ayo to Andres to Adonis.

It started with the tip. Da’Monte Williams jumped in for the fumbled tap out and ripped the ball from a Spartans’ hands. That was the same ferociousness the team displayed all night. Throughout the entire first half the defense made its presence known. The Illini forced Michigan State to commit an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers — and that was just the first half. The Spartans came in turning the ball over at a tune of 13 times a game. Cassius Winston has been in the talk for Big Ten Player of the Year, but the aggressive on-ball defense from the Illinois backcourt bothered him all night. The junior committed nine turnovers on the night with seven coming in the first frame. The tone the Illini were able to set defensively allowed Ayo Dosunmu and the rest of the team to find their groove on the other end of the floor.

The freshman Dosunmu didn’t just lead Illinois with 24 points to its best win in a handful of years. He also put himself squarely in the talk for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. About a week and a half ago I ran this poll:

Some guessed correctly that two two players were indeed Ayo Dosunmu and Romeo Langford, a future NBA lottery pick and favorite for this season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. The conference numbers between the two make it tough to choose one or the other, but interestingly enough, 60 percent of the voters chose ‘Player B’ or Ayo Dosunmu. Neither Dosunmu or Langford have done much to change those averages, but Dosunmu means just as much, if not more to this Illinois team than Langford does to the Hoosiers.

With the game in the balance and the hopes of an upset dwindling, Dosunmu nailed a clutch three from the left wing to put the Illini up a possession, and just as Dan Dakich criticized his isolation jumper from the top of the key against Winston, Dosunmu put another three-pointer through the bottom of the net. Now up six with less than a minute to go, Illinois was in full command and the Spartans were sent back to East Lansing, their No. 9 ranking sure to plummet in the next AP poll.

We’ve seen flashes of what this team can be before: the Gonzaga game, the Michigan game, the first half of Braggin’ Rights. The potential has always been there, but it wasn’t until tonight that we saw the team really turn a corner. Not only did the Illini find a way to comeback after losing a lead they maintained much of the game, but they dominated Michigan State over the course of the game.

The backcourt played aggressive, but everyone played within themselves. The stage never looked like it was too big for anyone on Tuesday night. Trent Frazier connected on multiple attempts from behind the arc and also went a solid 6-of-8 from the line. Even though Andres Feliz barely reaches 6-foot-2, he’s shown that he can finish against almost any defender in the country. Michigan State’s Nick Ward was no problem as he pulled down an offensive rebound and finished the layup despite a foul call.

Give credit to the big guys in the front court as well. Ward and Xavier Tillman are not easy matchups, but Giorgi Bezhanishvili has proven he’s a more than capable Big Ten post player. A former three-star recruit turned fan favorite, Bezhanishvili continued his streak of impressive outings with 16 points and five rebounds. The win came in front of Giorgi’s brother, Davit, who is seeing his little brother play for the first time in over a year. Adonis De La Rosa struggled to see the floor due to foul trouble, but with four consecutive possessions in the first half, the graduate transfer from Kent State gave Illinois its biggest spark of the game. After nailing a ten-footer of Ward, he drew a charge on Winston, found Kipper Nichols on the cross screen for the slam, and then topped the sequence off by drawing a charge against Ward.

With the win, the Illini now sit at 8-15 overall and 4-8 in conference play. They are now tied with Rutgers for 10th place in the Big Ten, but could easily finish as high as sixth with a favorable slate looming. Illinois still has Rutgers, Northwestern, Indiana and Penn State in the remaining home schedule. All four contests are winnable and would put the Illini at nearly .500 in conference play. But, they have yet to travel to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue, and Penn State. Knock off the Nittany Lions and steal one of Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Purdue, and you’re looking at a middle-of-the-pack 10-10 Big Ten team. Considering the non-conference schedule and the start to Big Ten action, a 14-17 squad finish to the regular season doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Illinois looked like it deserved to be playing basketball on a national network again for the first time in a long time, and while we might not have witnessed a season-saving win, we may have seen the culture change for this program.

Also, come on, Dan Dakich. You know better.

Storm, Illini storm.

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