As my Tweetdeck feed was auto-updating itself, and I saw Ayo Dosunmu post a video — the first frame nothing but a black screen just after 6 p.m. CT Thursday evening — shivers went down my spine. Press play. That was easily one of the longest minutes of my life, waiting to see that Illinois’ best player last season was 100 percent coming back.
Ayo Dosunmu is indeed coming back to the U of I for his sophomore season after likely thinking long and hard about this decision, and after numerous discussions with his family.
Validation for Brad Underwood
This news is good for Brad Underwood.
Ayo Dosunmu would not be returning to school if he did not have complete faith in head coach Brad Underwood’s scheme, motivational tactics and his ability to improve Ayo’s skillset ahead of an eventual decision to enter the NBA Draft.
If Ayo had any doubts about Brad Underwood’s ability as a head coach (as some of us on The Champaign Room staff have, including myself), he would not be coming back to Illinois. Ayo likely received some direct feedback as to very specific things he needs to improve on in the coming year that will make him a better NBA prospect. If he didn’t believe Brad Underwood and his staff could get him there, there’s no way he’d pledge another full year of his life and training to remain in the program.
The team coming back
In his video, Ayo mentioned that he loves his teammates. I won’t list them all, but it’s easy to see why Ayo is comfortable with this group of players.
Giorgi: Giorgi Bezhanishvili was an unstoppable big man at times last season, and his improvement throughout the year likely gave Ayo more reason and desire to see their on-court relationship continue to grow. Giorgi’s personality makes the grind of going to practice everyday fun. Check.
Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz: This three-headed monster at the guard position is going to be tough to beat and one of the best trios in the Big Ten. All three players have shown they can play well both with the ball in their hands and off-ball as well. All three guys can shoot it, take it to the hole, drive and dish — and, much to Brad Underwood’s liking, all three can defend extremely well. These are interchangeable parts, flexible and well-rounded enough to do whatever’s asked of them in any situation. Ayo has help. He’s not a one-man show at the guard position.
Kofi Cockburn: Cockburn will be a work in a progress as most freshmen are. Ayo and company have never played with a player that big (6-foot-10, 280 pounds). In his interview with WCIA’s Bret Behrens, Cockburn repeatedly talked about defense and hustle plays. How he’s still learning the offensive nuances of the game, but defense (specifically protecting the rim) and energy never stop. That can be enough for a team to win. That means Ayo, Trent and Feliz can play even harder pressure D in Brad Underwood’s system, knowing there’s a tree behind them to swat any layups if the guards get beat off the dribble.
Tevian Jones: We’re all hoping — and to some extent, expecting — Tevian Jones to continue to improve and show the consistency he’s capable of. The Tevian Jones that showed up at Madison Square Garden in the win against Maryland (18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 4-9 from 3-point range in 23 minutes) is a Tevian Jones capable of starting for the Illini. He’s oozing of potential and it’s important for the Illini to have athletic wings who can shoot the ball.
Pressure is on for Brad Underwood... It won’t be easy
On paper, this team is significantly better than it was last season. After two years of missing the postseason, it’s do-or-die time for the Illini to go dancing... or at least be on the bubble towards the final stretch of the season.
Things don’t happen in a vacuum. Illinois is improving, but so is everyone else. The Big Ten is really, really good. Teams like Penn State and Rutgers will be better than they were a year ago. Nebraska has a new head coach in Fred Hoiberg who will make the Cornhuskers contenders from the get-go. Minnesota and Iowa lose some important pieces in the frontcourt, but both also keep some really talented guards (Gabe Kalscheur and Joe Wieskamp, respectively). Wisconsin might dip a bit now that Ethan Happ is gone, but to expect a major drop-off isn’t realistic.
Ayo’s legend is growing by the day, but that also means Brad Underwood will be under more heat than he’s ever faced in his seven years as a head basketball coach at the Division I level.
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