CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — We’ve already touched on the possibility that Ayo Dosunmu may have played his last game for the Illini and what that may mean for the program moving forward, but what about the seniors who had their careers ended after the cancelation of the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic across the country.
The complete halt in sports has been especially frustrating for Illini nation, coming just days before the team was expected to hear its name called on Selection Sunday for the first time in more than half a decade.
While Illinois is still in good shape moving forward with 11 (or 12 if Ayo stays) of the Illini’s 16 players set to return for the 2020-21 season, it is impossible to ignore the fact that four of those players had their Illini — and potentially basketball careers — cut short.
Those seniors? Kipper Nichols, Andres Feliz, Tyler Underwood and Samson Oladimeji.
“You feel for Kipper, Tyler, Sammy, Andres Feliz,” said head coach Brad Underwood last Friday in a joint press conference with Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman.
Nichols finished his four-year career with more than 700 points, and a 3.4 per game mark this season. While his numbers and minutes played took a hit following his sophomore campaign, Nichols always did whatever had been asked of him by the coaching staff, with a smile on his face.
His final game in an Illini uniform may have been one of his best. With fellow big men Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in foul trouble or needing rest, Nichols put up a season-high 10 points and added three rebounds while providing valuable minutes for Underwood on Senior Night against Iowa.
Underwood’s son, Tyler, only appeared in 33 games over the course of his three seasons at Illinois — the first of which was a redshirt year for transferring after coming with his dad from his former job at Oklahoma State. Underwood was known primarily for defense, and made several valuable stops for the Orange and Blue.
His one career start came in the final game he’ll ever play for Illinois, where he assisted on two Kofi Cockburn slams in three minutes of play before he was taken out by his father one final time.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” the head coach said. “For his last game to be a start, for his last game to contribute.”
His feelings were even more heartfelt in the days leading up to Senior Night.
“I’m a very, very proud father, and I’m very proud to coach him.”
Oladimeji only played 64 minutes in 34 games across his four-year Illini career, scoring six points in those contests.
While Oladimeji’s contribution wasn’t often seen on the stat sheet, it is evident how much he mattered in the clubhouse for the Illini.
HIs final appearance on the floor was March 5 at Ohio State, as he was under the weather during the Illini’s Senior Night celebrations.
Finally, Feliz played his last Illini game against the Hawkeyes, with the hopes of him contributing even more in the coming months.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Feliz moved to the United States to play JUCO ball and finished as the nation’s top point guard recruit and as a 2018 NJCAA Division I first-team All-American — both of which drew attention from Illinois.
With two years of eligibility left, Feliz joined the Illini, where his contributions were noticed immediately.
In his career in Champaign, Feliz averaged 9.6 points per game, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, but he was most known for contorting his body to showcase his athleticism while absorbing contact to make layups.
Feliz’s senior season was impressive, averaging 11 points and five rebounds per game, and providing a layer of consistency to the sometimes shaky Illini. His Illini career ended with a 14-point showing against Iowa, which earned high praise from his head coach.
“If someone had to describe our program, I want it to be [Feliz’s] picture,” Underwood said. “All the traits you write about, I want that.
“He’s been as big of a piece in this as Ayo or anyone who has helped us get this thing flipped.”
So, after a 21-10 season — one that ends without a name called on Selection Sunday — it’s still clear the Illini’s seniors helped finally turn the program back around.
“This team achieved a lot. I’m extremely proud,” Underwood said. “We got back in the tournament. We got Illinois on a national stage.”
But, while Underwood, the staff and players can believe they made the NCAA Tournament, that will tragically never be the case for these seniors.
“We’ll get back there [to the NCAA tournament],” Underwood said. “But those four guys won’t.”
As the days since the tourney’s cancelation on Friday have passed, players and coaches have taken to social media to express their feelings.
Underwood used a quote from the late Kobe Bryant.
“You are responsible for how people remember you — or don’t — so don’t take it lightly.”
Adding, “This group didn’t take it lightly and I know how they’ll remember us.”
Oladimeji focused on the team as a whole.
“This group is special and I love every single one of my brothers,” he wrote. “I’m glad I got to go on this journey with them, and I’ll be watching next year when they go on their Final Four run.”
Feliz expressed sadness.
“I’m so sad that the season ended like this, but all I know is that ‘blessings never stop, they keep going’ and God has a reason for everything. Once again, thank you to the University of Illinois for having me. Two years was not enough... The Vroom Vroom is out.”
And then there was Kipper.
“You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.”