CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — About 11 months ago, Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu was pondering whether or not he would go to the NBA or return to the University of Illinois for his sophomore season.
In a social media post that announced his plans to return, Dosunmu said “I stayed home to help Coach Underwood turn the Illinois program around.”
Later in the video Ayo said, “Illinois needs to dance,” while using the hashtag #UnfinishedBusiness.
Before finishing the announcement, the Chicago-native made some promises for the 2019-20 season.
“I love my teammates. It’s time to work harder. We’re getting bigger, better, stronger. We are building. We will be better, I will be better, and that starts now.”
He delivered on each one.
Dosunmu brought his weight up to 185 pounds, and appeared stronger in every phase of his game. His points per game jumped from 13.8 to 16.6, as well significant spikes in his rebounds, free throw percentage, field goal percentage, and the Illini as a whole saw their win total rise from 12 to 21.
Ayo hit clutch shots with the best of them. He put the dagger in several of Illinois’ wins this season, including a buzzer beater at Wisconsin, put nails in the coffin against Indiana, ended Iowa’s hopes of a season-finale win and ended Penn State’s top-10 reign.
Dosunmu’s season, which was recognized by the media as All Big-Ten caliber, seemed all but certain to reach the NCAA tournament — fulfilling the final of his many promises made to Illini nation when he announced his decision to return.
But due to the spread of COVID-19 and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, his sophomore season — and likely his career — at Illinois was cut short.
“You’re talking about a young man that was getting ready to perform on the stage he loves the most,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “The big stage.”
But whether or not the Illini get to play, Underwood looks at the team the same.
“We were an NCAA tournament team. We got back in the tournament. We got Illinois on a national stage.”
And as far as they’re concerned, Ayo’s promises were fulfilled, and his head coach appreciates him for it.
“My love for Ayo runs well beyond what you could even imagine,” Underwood said in a press conference with Athletic Director Josh Whitman on Friday. “He and I had an unbelievable common link in terms of wanting to see this thing grow.”
As Underwood got a little bit emotional at the microphone, he reflected on the drive Dosunmu displayed all year long.
“I have not been around a player as committed to success and work than Ayo is.”
And for the head coach who had just had his contract extended, he would love to see No. 11 back in Orange and Blue the next time — whenever that is — the Illini play.
But he is also not blind to the fact that his floor general can — and will — see some attention from the NBA.
“We’ll see what his future holds,” Underwood said. “I think everything is up in the air with the NBA.”
And if Dosunmu does end up hearing his name called on Draft Day — whenever that day comes in June or later — Underwood won’t feel anything but pride for knowing Ayo played a critical role in turning the program around.
“We’ll be there to support him any way we can.”