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The Year That Could’ve Been

2020 saw lots of disappointment, but there is plenty of room for optimism.

NCAA Basketball: Tenn-Martin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

2020 is mere hours away from being over. The dawn of a new year gives us time to reflect on what was good and what might’ve been, as well as gives us an opportunity to look ahead. 2020 gave Fighting Illini fans plenty of things to be excited about while still leaving us yearning for something more. The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted life as we know it, forcing us to change our collective way of life...including the way we consume sports.

We identify the time of year based on certain events on the sports calendar — the Daytona 500 & Super Bowl? February. NCAA Tournament? March. The Masters? April. The Kentucky Derby? May. World Series? October. So many of our favorite sporting events were postponed, rescheduled, or canceled altogether. My goal of this “year in review” is not to dwell on the BS of 2020, but to highlight the memorable and notable. Let’s get started.

  • Illinois Baseball head coach Dan Hartleb was named Big Ten Coach of the Decade by D1Baseball.com in January. Unfortunately, Illinois played only 13 games before the Big Ten canceled competition on March 12.
  • Sarah Haveman was hired as head coach for men’s & women’s cross country on Jan. 16, becoming Illinois’ first female coach of a men’s athletic program.
  • Redshirt senior Jonathan Wells claimed the long jump title at the 2020 B1G Indoor Track & Field Championships, thus becoming only the sixth Big Ten athlete to win conference titles in both high jump and long jump.
  • Illinois men’s basketball started 2020 by shutting down Purdue, holding the Boilermakers to 25% shooting and a program record 37 points on Jan. 5.
  • That same week, the Fighting Illini snapped a 15-game losing skid against Wisconsin with a thrilling 71-70 win in Madison.
  • Former Illini center Robert Archibald passed away unexpectedly at age 39. Arch was the first Scotsman to play in the NBA.
  • On Jan. 25, Ayo Dosunmu sunk a 15-footer in the final second to take down the Michigan Wolverines and jump into first place in the B1G.
  • After missing a game due to a frightening-looking knee injury, Ayo hit another game-winner at No. 9 Penn State, securing Illinois’ first road win over a top-10 opponent since 2012.
  • Trent Frazier made this shot against Nebraska.
  • Head coach Brad Underwood agreed to a 6-year contract extension, keeping him in C-U through 2025-26.
  • The final image of Illini basketball’s season was Kofi Cockburn’s block of Luka Garza to preserve a victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes. That win secured a top-four conference finish heading into the B1G Tournament, but the Illini wouldn’t take the floor again. Illinois was certainly on its way to reaching its first NCAA Tournament since 2013 before COVID-19 concerns prematurely ended the season.
  • Cockburn was voted Big Ten Freshman of the Year, while Ayo Dosunmu was named First Team All-Big Ten (AP, media) and was the first basketball player chosen as Illinois Athlete of the Year since 2005.
  • In the midst of the pandemic, Illini fans were able to dream of the possibility of a (fanless) basketball season. House of ‘Paign, a team consisting of Illini alums including Nnanna Egwu, Malcolm Hill & Andres Feliz, advanced to the quarterfinals of this summer’s The Basketball Tournament, dethroning reigning champs Carmen’s Crew.
  • Legendary men’s basketball coach Lou Henson passed away on July 25 at age 88. Henson coached in Champaign from 1975-96 and is Illinois’ all-time wins leader with 423.
  • Expectations and excitement were heightened for Illini basketball when Ayo announced he’d be bypassing the NBA Draft and returning for his junior season. Kofi withdrew his name from the NBA Draft the following day. #UnfinishedBusiness
  • The 2020-21 season began with a pair of eye-popping victories. Hosting its own Thanksgiving hoops tournament, Illinois throttled North Carolina A&T 122-60, and followed that effort with a 97-38 win over Chicago State. But the highlight of the Illini’s non-conference schedule came on Dec. 8, when they dominated No. 10 Duke, 83-68, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
  • Illinois enters 2021 at 7-3 (3-1 Big Ten), averaging a whopping 87.3 PPG on 53.1% field goal shooting (42.6% from three-point range). Preseason All-American Dosunmu has lived up to the hype, averaging 24.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 5.2 APG. Cockburn ended 2020 averaging 17.2 PPG and 9.9 RPG. It appears that returning to Champaign was a prudent decision for both.
  • On the gridiron, hopes were high for the Fighting Illini following a Redbox Bowl appearance and a favorable non-league schedule. But when the Big Ten announced a truncated conference-only plan it proved to be disadvantageous to Illinois. The Illini finished just 2-6, and Lovie Smith was fired as head football coach after a disappointing 17-39 record in five seasons.
  • AD Josh Whitman was quick to appoint Lovie’s replacement, hiring former Wisconsin & Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema on Dec. 19. The Prophetstown, Illinois, native is still rounding out his coaching staff, but several key veteran players — Brandon Peters, Vederian Lowe, Doug Kramer & Alex Palczewski — have already opted to return for next season. Bielema has an uphill climb ahead of him to help restore the football program, but he’s said and done all the right things to this point.

It’s been a very eventful year, Illini fans. Here’s hoping 2021 provides fulfillment. Auld lang syne. I-L-L...