As Ayo Dosunmu, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, rose to the top step of the ladder and cut down a piece of nylon from the net at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, another jumbotron in the corner of the arena revealed Illinois would be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament — the first tournament appearance since 2013.
“Knowing when I came on my visit, I talked to Coach Underwood and said these are the things we can accomplish here,” Dosunmu said after the Illini knocked off fifth-seeded Ohio State, 91-88, in the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis. “To be on that ladder and see the No. 1 seed, it’s an unreal feeling.”
The moment was poetic for the program. The Illini reached the top of the mountain in more ways than one, truly culminating the magical season this team has had thus far.
“This is what it all means,” the junior said as he snatched the Big Ten Tournament trophy. “We put all the work in to win this trophy right here. Through my mind I was thinking about all the people who doubted us and also thinking about all the fans who had been there through it all. So, to be able to know that we earned this, like this is ours, it feels good.”
The Big Ten Tournament title marked the Illini’s first since 2005. On top of that, the Illini earned a No. 1 seed for just the fourth time in program history and also the first since that legendary run in 2005.
As the top seed in the Midwest region, the Illini drew No. 16 Drexel in the first round of the tournament. Tipoff is set for 12:15 pm on Friday afternoon on TBS.
“We’re gonna take it one game at a time, you know, that’s all we can do,” Dosunmu said. “Our coaching staff is gonna do a great job to, you know, prepare for Drexel.”
Should the Illini top Drexel, they will take on the winner of No. 8 Loyola and No. 9 Georgia Tech on Sunday for a chance to make their first Sweet 16 since, you guessed it, 2005.
“It’s win or go home,” he said. “You really can’t look ahead or look at any other rounds, all we can do is focus in on our first opponent, so we’re gonna do that.”
You know the season is a special one when every other sentence is something happening “for the first time since,” but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The Illini’s goals stretch beyond what any Illinois team has ever done before.
“It feels good but I want more,” Dosunmu said. “This is something that I am definitely going to soak in. It’s something that I’m definitely gonna be proud of because this is an accomplishment we made when our season first started, but we have bigger goals and it’s much more to accomplish.”
Illinois is going for its first National Championship in the modern area, and its first since 1943.
And there is a reason the Illini packed their bags for a month.
Ayo Dosunmu broke his Instagram hiatus with a caption that said “Job not finished,” and head coach Brad Underwood tweeted a picture of him wearing the net as Dosunmu and Trent Frazier hoisted the trophy, saying “Not done yet.”
“In order to get to those bigger goals and aspirations, we have to accomplish this one first.”