731 days ago, Illinois Basketball was officially back.
The 2018-2019 season got off to a choppy start, but the team had much more promise than it had shown in the years since Malcolm Hill had graduated. Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili were a killer freshmen duo, Brad Underwood was about 50 pounds heavier, and 50 wins lighter.
Illinois welcomed a No. 9 Michigan State team into State Farm Center, in front of a packed 15,000 or so fans. It was the Illini’s seventh game against a ranked opponent (they were 1-5), and the program was truly starting to turn around thanks to Ayo Dosunmu’s immediate impact. The team was clearly on the upswing but still in search of that program-altering win.
That win came on Feb. 5th, 2019.
The Illini stunned the Spartans with a 79-74 victory to earn their first top-10 win since 2013 against Indiana. Dosunmu finished with a game-high 24 points, including the dagger three-pointer over Cassius Winston — which put both Dosunmu and the Illini on a national map.
But Dakich being wrong and the court getting stormed was only the start for this program.
Since that game, the Illini have gone 37-21, including five wins over ranked teams.
Last season, the Illini welcomed No. 5 Michigan to town for a contest that the Illini dominated — winning 71-62. As big as a top-five win is in the Big Ten, Brad Underwood told the leaders of Orange Krush not to storm the court when the game was in hand late.
That’s because Illinois expected to win that game. The team changed from one that stole wins from good teams to one that expected them in just one season.
Fast forward to this year, not only are the Illini expecting to win them in their locker room — they are favored to win these games. In fact, Illinois leads the nation in Quad 1/2 wins with nine.
The Illini have been favored in every game this season aside from their top-5 matchup with No. 2 Baylor (17-0) back in December.
It just goes to show how much this program has grown in the last two years — and really, in the four years since Underwood was handed the keys.
“We’ve gone from hunting everybody, and chasing them, and trying to get where they get,” Underwood said in November. “I ask my team every year, ‘Who’s the hardest playing team in the conference?’ and I knew we had no chance the first couple years because everybody said Michigan State, or somebody else. Nobody said us. That’s how low we thought of each other and of our program. And now that’s changed.”
Landing top-50 recruits was rare. Now, it appears regular. Winning games against top-10 teams happened once every five years. Now, it happens five times in two years.
But the great thing about this team is they are not content. Take it from preseason All-American and National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu.
“There’s so much more for us to prove,” Dosunmu said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
The Illini are back on the court with more to prove today as they welcome No. 19 Wisconsin to State Farm Center.