261 days ago Illinois played its last game of the season, a 78-76 win at home over fellow top-25 team Iowa, and the Illini were preparing for a NCAA Tournament berth.
COVID-19 ended that season abruptly, and ended the Illini’s tournament hopes. Now with new protocols in place, the Illini begin their highly anticipated season on Wednesday as part of a three-game-in-three-days tournament with non-conference teams at State Farm Center.
“I wish we were playing league games only, but we’re not,” said head coach Brad Underwood in a Tuesday media session via Zoom.
But regardless of opponent, Underwood and the Illini are eager to get back on the court.
“I’m really excited, I’m really anxious,” Underwood said. “I’m ready to play.”
Circumstances are different for Illinois. The Illini now have high expectations, players on national award watch lists and a No. 8 ranking in the AP Poll.
“We’ve gone from hunting everybody, and chasing them, and trying to get where they get,” Underwood said. “I ask my team every year, ‘Who’s the hardest playing team in the conference?’ and I knew we had no chance the first couple years because everybody said Michigan State, or somebody else. Nobody said us. That’s how low we thought of each other, and of our program. And now that’s changed.”
“Three years ago looking to now,” said senior guard Trent Frazier, “I never though we would've been top-10 in the country.”
But here they are, ranked in the top-10, welcoming North Carolina A&T, Chicago State and Ohio in town, three games in three days.
“Three games in three days doesn't bother me,” Underwood said.
As for the starting lineup, a coach like Underwood who values bench productivity and hasn't seen some of these players in live action, his mind is not made up.
“Ayo [Dosunmu] is gonna be in the lineup, and I probably think I should start Kofi [Cockburn],” he joked.
Dosunmu returns for his junior season, after declaring for the NBA Draft and withdrawing his name to come back to Champaign and contend for a national title.
The Chicago native has been named to numerous national award watch lists and is a preseason All-American, but he isn't getting caught up in all of the expectations he and his team have.
“There’s so much more for us to prove,” Dosunmu said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Dosunmu was named as a captain for his junior season, and expressed the team’s mindset with the expectations they have this year.
“It’s all outside noise,” he said. “We love it, we welcome it, we know the team we are, we just have to prove it and it starts [Wednesday] with North Carolina A&T.”
As for his head coach:
“I’m very blessed to be the basketball coach at Illinois. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but we’re not done yet.”