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Illinois Athletics 2021 Rewind

It was a busy year.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

We made it, Fighting Illini fans! Another year is almost in the books, and what a year it’s been. 2021 wasn’t quite as chaotic as 2020, but the Illini still offered us plenty to talk about, from record-setting moments to emphatic rivalry wins to a litany of individual accolades. As we get set to watch the ball drop once again, let’s recap the past 365 days in Illinois athletics...

Jan. 7: In one of the weirdest college basketball games of the season, Illinois defeats Northwestern 81-56 after outscoring the Wildcats 53-13 in the second half.

Mar. 2: The Illini — without an injured Ayo Dosunmu — thrash the rival Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor, 76-53. Nobody would ever speak of this game again.

The aforementioned Wolverines would later be crowned Big Ten regular season champs despite losing to Illinois head-to-head and winning (and playing) fewer conference games than the Illini. Michigan was awarded the regular season title due to overall winning percentage.

Mar. 9: The Big Ten releases its All-Conference teams. Ayo is named a unanimous First Team selection. Kofi Cockburn is also voted First Team All-Big Ten, while senior Trent Frazier was named to the All-Defensive Team. Andre Curbelo was selected to the Big Ten All-Freshmen Team and voted the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year.

Mar. 14: Illinois defeats Ohio State in overtime, 91-88, to win the Big Ten Tournament title for the first time since 2005. Brad Underwood’s team would receive a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament later that day.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Mar. 19: In its first NCAA Tournament game in 2,917 days (!) Illinois drubs 16-seed Drexel, 78-49, in Indianapolis. Ayo records a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds and also leads the team with six assists.

Mar. 21: The Fighting Illini’s season ends in stunning fashion. Illinois is upset by 8-seed Loyola-Chicago, 71-59, in the Round of 32. Brad Underwood’s team finishes its season at 24-7. Everything is fine and dandy and Illini fans aren’t upset at all!

Mar. 26: Dosunmu & Cockburn are selected to the Wooden Award All-America Team. It’s the first year since 2005 that Illinois has multiple Wooden Award All-Americans (Dee Brown, Deron Williams). Additionally, Ayo is named a Wooden finalist. Iowa’s Luka Garza ultimately took home the National Player of the Year honors.

Apr. 3: Ayo receives the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to college basketball’s top point guard. The Chicago native was also named USA Today Player of the Year and finished his 2020-21 season averaging 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds & 5.3 assists per game.

Apr. 6-9: Ayo, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and Trent Frazier declare for the NBA Draft.

Apr. 8: Jim Heffernan retires after 12 years as Illinois head wrestling coach and 29 seasons overall with the program. Heffernan coached 73 All-Americans, 215 NCAA qualifiers, 11 individual NCAA champions and 20 Big Ten Conference champions during his tenure.

Apr. 17: Junior gymnast Ian Skirkey wins a national title on Pommel Horse at the NCAA Championships, Illinois’ first champion in the event since 2016.

As a team, the Fighting Illini finish sixth overall at the NCAA Championships. Skirkey & sophomore Justin McCool (floor exercise) were also named All-Americans.

Apr. 21: Two-time Big Ten champion & three-time All-American Mike Poeta is tabbed as Jim Heffernan’s replacement as head wrestling coach.

Apr. 30: Interior offensive lineman Kendrick Green is chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the NFL Draft.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Kendrick Green (#53) was the first Illini selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

May 1: Illini cornerback Nate Hobbs is selected by the Las Vegas Raiders in the 5th round. 2021 marks the first year with multiple Illini drafted since 2016.

May 2: The men’s tennis team defeats Ohio State to win the Big Ten tournament title.

May 2: Illinois men’s golf wins its sixth consecutive conference title — and 11th in the past 12 seasons — fending off the Iowa Hawkeyes in the final round of the Big Ten Championships.

May 15: Jonathan Wells takes first place in high jump and long jump at the Big Ten Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Champaign. Wells, the 2020 indoor champ in long jump, becomes just the sixth athlete to win long jump & high jump at the same Big Ten Championships, and the first in 36 years.

May 16: The Fighting Illini sweep the 1,500-meter titles on Day Two of the Big Ten Outdoor Championships — Olivia Howell won the women’s race with a program-record time of 4:12.86, while Ian Davis took gold for the men in 3:51.55. The team of Kashief King, Jason Thormo, Aman Thornton & Robert Williams were also victorious in the 4x400-meter relay.

Jun. 24: Ayo Dosunmu & track and field All-American Olivia Howell are named the Dike Eddleman Athletes of the Year, awarded to the university’s best male and female athletes. Dosunmu was a back-to-back recipient. Howell, a Second Team All-American, was the Big Ten Indoor Champion in the mile, Big Ten Outdoor Champion in the 1,500-meter run, set the program record in the 1,500m during NCAA prelims (4:09.71) and placed 10th in the 1,500m at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

Jul. 1: The NCAA ratifies an initial Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) policy, allowing student-athletes to profit off promotions, apparrel, endorsements, etc., while still maintaining their eligibility and amateur status.

Jul. 1: Kofi Cockburn keeps his name in the NBA Draft, but also announces he would be entering the transfer portal.

Jul. 6: Cockburn pulls out of the NBA Draft but remains in the transfer portal, narrowing his choices to Illinois, Kentucky, and Florida State.

Jul. 16: Cockburn withdraws from the transfer portal and formally announces he will return to Champaign for his junior season. This puts a bow on what is the wildest, most unpredictable offseason in program history.

Jul. 16: Former Illinois defensive end Bobby Roundtree — whose football career was prematurely cut short due to a spinal injury — unexpectedly passes away at 23.

Jul. 23: The opening ceremonies are held for the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Nine former Fighting Illini athletes represent their home nations:

  • Michelle Bartsch-Hackley (USA) / Women’s Volleyball
  • Tyson Bull (Australia) / Men’s Gymnastics
  • Thomas Detry (Belgium) / Golf
  • Alex Diab (USA) / Men’s Gymnastics
  • David Kendziera (USA) / Track & Field
  • Thomas Pieters (Belgium) / Golf
  • Jordyn Poulter (USA) / Women’s Volleyball
  • Rajeev Ram (USA) / Tennis
  • Erin Virtue (USA) / Women’s Volleyball

Jul. 29: Ayo Dosunmu is picked in the second round (38th overall) by his hometown Chicago Bulls, becoming the first Illini selected in the NBA Draft since Meyers Leonard in 2012.

Aug. 8: The aforementioned Bartsch-Hackley, Poulter, and Virtue (asst. coach) helped lead Team USA to its first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s volleyball, defeating Brazil 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 24-14) in the final.

Aug. 13: Ayo Dosunmu signs a two-year contract with the Chicago Bulls.

Aug. 28: Illinois football ushers in the Bret Bielema era with a 30-22 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Sep. 16: Head men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood agrees to a contract extension through the 2026-27 season. The deal makes Underwood one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in Division I.

Oct. 6: Former assistant basketball coach Dick Nagy dies at age 78. Nagy served under Lou Henson for 17 seasons, including the Flyin’ Illini’s Final Four run in 1988-89.

Oct. 23: Bret Bielema earns his first signature win as Illinois’ head football coach when the Illini prevail at Penn State in 9 OTs, the longest college football game of ALL TIME. Chase Brown & Josh McCray combined to rush for 365 yards on 57 carries against the Nittany Lions’ vaunted run defense.

Oct. 27: Kofi Cockburn is the first Illini named Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year since Dee Brown in 2005. Sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo is also voted to the All-Conference team.

Oct. 30: Offensive linemen Vederian Lowe & Alex Palczewski break the program record, each making their 49th career start in the Illini’s game at Rutgers.

Nov. 1: Cockburn is suspended three games by the NCAA for selling team-issued apparel and memorabilia before the NLI rules took effect in July. The Fighting Illini would go 2-1 in those games.

Nov. 6: Illinois football again upsets a ranked opponent on the road in a 14-6 win at Minnesota. Ryan Walters’ defense holds the Golden Gophers to 89 yards rushing and sacks QB Tanner Morgan six times.

Nov. 9: The Fighting Illini men’s basketball team — without Kofi, Curbelo (concussion) & Trent Frazier (shoulder) — tip off the regular season with a 71-47 win over Jackson State.

Nov. 14: AD Josh Whitman extends the contract of first-year Defensive Coordinator Ryan Walters through 2024. Walters reshaped what was one of the worst defenses in FBS, improving Illinois from 463.7 yards per game allowed in 2020 to 366.3 ypg in 2021. The Illini also allowed 13 fewer points per game this past season.

Nov. 27: Illinois football claims the Land of Lincoln Trophy and snaps a 6-game losing streak against Northwestern, defeating the Wildcats in Champaign on Senior Day, 47-14. Bret Bielema ends his first season with a 5-7 record. #HAT

Nov. 30: Safety Kerby Joseph is named First Team All-Big Ten, the first Illini defensive back to merit such honors since Vontae Davis in 2008 — and the first safety since 1973.

Dec. 4: Illinois women’s volleyball advances to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament after upsetting defending champion Kentucky in the second round.

Dec. 6: Former defensive end Glenn Foster Jr. passes away at age 31. The Mount Carmel graduate lettered for the Illini from 2010-12, playing in 41 contests, including the 2010 Texas Bowl & 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Foster’s death is still under investigation.

Dec. 18: The Fighting Illini set a new single-game program record with 18 three-pointers in a 106-48 win against St. Francis (PA). The previous record of 17 made triples was attained in the 2020 season opener versus North Carolina A&T.

Dec. 18: Former Illini forward Hope Breslin is drafted in the 3rd round (28th overall) by the expansion Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). In 41 games for Illinois, Breslin compiled 18 career goals — 11th in program history.

Dec. 22: In the wake of a new spike in coronavirus cases, the University of Illinois announces a stringent new attendance policy for State Farm Center. Beginning Jan. 1, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test will be required for all university-sponsored events open to the public with more than 200 people in attendance.

Dec. 22: Missouri & Illinois meet in the annual Busch McBride Homes Braggin’ Rights game. The Illini romp, 88-63, to snap a three-game losing skid in the rivalry. Kofi Cockburn leads Illinois with 25 points and 14 rebounds, the trio of Alfonso Plummer, Jacob Grandison & Trent Frazier combine for 9-of-17 threes, and Brad Underwood provides us with the GIF of the season:

Dec. 27: Illinois cancels its scheduled game versus Florida A&M due to positive COVID tests within the men’s basketball program. The Fighting Illini end the calendar year at 9-3 (2-0 Big Ten). Kofi Cockburn leads the team in scoring (21.8 ppg) and rebounding (12.1 rpg) and Illinois is currently top-15 nationally in three-point shooting (39.7%).

Dec. 27: Former Illini wing Malcolm Hill, playing for the Atlanta Hawks, scores the first NBA points of his career in a 130-118 loss to Ayo Dosunmu’s Chicago Bulls. Hill graduated from Illinois in 2017 and is the third-leading scorer in school history (1,846 points).

Dec. 28: Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren releases an updated version of the conference’s COVID-related forfeiture policy, effective immediately:

“All 14 Big Ten member institutions have been in continuous contact about developments related to COVID-19. The well-being of our student-athletes and our entire athletic communities is our top priority and we are updating our forfeiture policy to support their health and safety as well as the integrity of conference competition. If a team or teams is/are unable to participate in a scheduled Conference competition due to COVID-19 ... the competition may be rescheduled, or declared a no contest or a forfeiture.

The Conference office will be responsible for rescheduling any conference competition postponed due to COVID-19 ... A team that does not compete, and is unable to demonstrate why it is unsafe to compete, will be assessed a forfeiture. Postponed competitions that do not result in forfeiture but are unable to be rescheduled will be declared ‘no contests.’”

Dec. 30: The Illinois-Minnesota men’s basketball game scheduled for Jan. 2 is postponed until Jan. 4 due to continuing COVID issues within the program.

It’s been quite a year. If you’ve made it this far... you’re REALLY a die hard fan — or you just needed some extended bathroom reading. Either way, I know I speak for all of us at The Champaign Room when I say thanks for reading and being along for the ride.

Cheers to 2022, Illini fans!