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NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t TCR’s first Ode to Ayo, but this one actually is an ode.

You see, when I edited Ian Gold’s “Ode” to Ayo back in October 2017, I’m not sure I knew what an ode was. And now, 3.5 years later, do I know what an ode is? Not really, but I’m closer than I was back then.

In a lot of ways, it’s the exact same thing for the journey of Illinois Basketball during that time.

When Illinois started ‘recruiting’ Ayo Dosunmu, five-star Chicago product lighting it up with the Mac Irvin Fire, in the mid-2010s, Illinois Basketball was not Illinois Basketball. For as long as I’ve been covering the Illini (six years now), the Illini have not been the Illini. When I took the trip to Springfield back in 2015 to see Illinois lose to Chattanooga, I knew something was off. But it was almost so bad that there was never a chance it would get good.

You had to think, we’re never going to see Illinois. We’re just going to watch Illinois forever and ever and ever.

And then along comes Brad Underwood, who keeps Trent and Da’Monte and brings in Mark Smith and the crew. And there goes everyone but Trent and Da’Monte. But here comes Ayo and Giorgi and Teveryone else (see what I did there??). And there goes everyone but Ayo and Giorgi. But here comes Kofi and Jermaine Hamlin. And then more reinforcements (Ace and Belo) on top of that.

And suddenly, it’s starting to look like Illinois Basketball.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Trent and DMW (and Zach Griffith) for their contributions to the program. If they didn’t stay on from the Groce recruiting cycle to Underwood’s first year, the first few seasons of this might’ve looked a lot worse.

But it’s hard to argue that anyone is more responsible for the quick turnaround than Ayo.

He’s electric. He’s a winner. He’s the best representative this school could’ve asked for when it comes to the face of its athletic department.

And now, he’s going to go. And while a mask is ready and fitted, we don’t know the next time we’ll see him. Or, tragically, if there is a next time.

So, about 400 words later, I guess I didn’t write an ode. Maybe I still don’t know what an ode is? And, you know, that’s okay.

Because when it comes down to it, Illinois Basketball still isn’t Illinois Basketball. Rankings are nice, road wins are cool, but Ayo’s goals — the reason he came back TWICE — still haven’t been achieved: Make the NCAA Tournament.

This is how Ian ended the original Ode to Ayo:

Illini fans have had enough recruiting heartbreak — it’s time to have some fun. Get your bubbly on ice, Champaign: It’s Ayo weekend!

And this is how the second Ode, with confidence that Ayo will return, will end:

Illinois fans have had enough heartbreak — it’s time to have some fun. Get your bubbly on ice and put on your mask one last time, Champaign: It’s Ayo time!

And in six weeks, may there be a real Ode to Ayo.