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The same, but different

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This is what Illinois basketball is supposed to look like.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

It’s January 2020. Illinois is 9-5. After a few poor losses, fans and media alike question if the Illini can live up to their preseason expectations. But then, something happens. Illinois rips off seven wins in a row, the seventh coming against Minnesota. Ayo Dosunmu, best player for Illinois, becomes Ayo Dosunmu, First Team All-Big Ten stud. You know the rest.

Now fast-forward a year. It’s January 2021. Illinois is 9-5. After a few poor losses, fans and media alike question if the Illini can live up to their preseason expectations. But then, something happens. Illinois rips off seven wins in a row, the seventh coming against Minnesota. Ayo Dosunmu, best guard in the Big Ten, becomes Ayo Dosunmu, National Player of the Year candidate.

The paths of the last two seasons are so similar it’s almost uncanny. But the two teams aren’t quite the same, are they?

Last year, Illinois started 9-5 against a schedule that included eight mid- and low-major teams, playing the likes of Old Dominion and Hampton in over half of its games. This year, Illinois hasn’t played a mid-major (Ohio) since the first week of the season.

Last year, Illinois struggled to compete against superior opponents, suffering two 20-point losses in the first two months of the season. This year, the only game Illinois has lost by more than two possessions came against the undefeated second-ranked team in the country.

Last year, Illinois usually needed Ayo to dominate to have a chance in the Big Ten. This year, Ayo is dominating even more, but the rest of the team has gotten better around him too.

I want to focus on that last point. In the first 2,850 games of Illinois basketball, only twice did an Illini record a triple-double. In the last four games, Ayo Dosunmu has registered two triple-doubles himself. That’s just absurd, and that’s before we even consider Ayo’s ever-growing portfolio of closing-time daggers. Ayo has been incredible, and the whole world knows it.

What the world doesn’t know yet, though, is that the supporting cast has been every bit as important to Illinois’ success as Ayo has. Kofi Cockburn is having an All American-caliber season, averaging a double-double with a ridiculous 68% field goal percentage. Trent Frazier has put up 14 points and over two steals a night during the current winning streak. Four other Illini have reached double figures in recent weeks. Everything’s clicking, and yesterday’s win over Minnesota shows just how far Illinois has come.

Now obviously, the story of the game is Ayo’s triple-double, and rightly so. But his triple-double was just icing on the cake; Illinois probably could have won this game without him. Kofi’s 22 points led the team, and he chipped in 6 rebounds as well. Trent Frazier dropped 15 points and locked down Marcus Carr en route to a career-high 6 steals. Jacob Grandison added an efficient 12 points and 4 assists, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili scored 9 points in just 11 minutes off the bench. Brad Underwood likes to talk about playing the perfect game — a 31-point road win in this year’s Big Ten is about as close as you can get.

Speaking of this year’s Big Ten, the schedule’s not getting any easier. Four of the final five games are on the road, including at No. 21 Wisconsin, No. 4 Ohio State, and No. 3 Michigan. Illinois struggled last year, and even lost four games in a row, when the schedule got tougher and it was competing for a Big Ten title. But this Illinois basketball team isn’t the same as last year — it’s better.

Last year, Illinois had two All-Big Ten players. This year, Illinois has two All-Americans.

Last year, Illinois eked out Big Ten wins by the skin of its teeth. This year, Illinois runs Big Ten teams off the floor.

Last year, Illinois announced its presence as a contender for the Big Ten championship. This year, Illinois has announced its presence as a contender for the national championship.