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‘It’s March’: No. 4 Illinois ready for the week ahead

It’s the second top-5 battle of the year for the Illini.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

A game, that will likely decide the Big Ten, that was first scheduled for early February, is finally taking place Tuesday as the Illini travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to take on the Wolverines.

Illinois will have its hands full with Juwan Howard’s squad, who, as of Monday, are the first team not named Gonzaga or Baylor to be ranked in the top-two in the AP Poll all season.

“It’s March. I’ve been fortunate to see Gonzaga and Baylor in person,” said head coach Brad Underwood over Zoom on Monday. “Michigan is in their caliber.”

Three and a half weeks ago, the Illini were in the middle of a 7-game winning streak while the Wolverines were navigating their return from a COVID-19 forced layoff. Whether they felt they needed more prep for a red-hot Illinois team or felt COVID concerns were still prevalent in the program will never be known — but the game got postponed nonetheless.

Fast forward to March 2 and Michigan catches Illinois on its fourth game in eight days, with a banged-up National Player of the Year Candidate in Ayo Dosunmu, whose status for Tuesday’s game remains uncertain.

“I got all the respect in the world for Michigan,” Underwood said. “It’s just an unusual year. A one-off year. We’re going to play ‘em because we’re part of the league and we’re going to play them because that’s who the league says we’re going to play.”

But with Ayo or not, this game has been circled on the calendar for a while. These two teams are the best the Big Ten has to offer, and Underwood knows the Illini have their work cut out for them.

“I have great appreciation for connectivity. They play with great energy,” Underwood said. “I would fully expect us to do the same.”

Curbelo named Big Ten Freshman of the Week

When Dosunmu went down late in the Michigan State game last Tuesday with a facial injury that has kept him out of the lineup, the Illini needed somebody to step up.

So far, that man has been Andre Curbelo.

“I’ve always been a guy that likes a challenge,” Curbelo said. “We were a man down in those games and we knew it, and that’s what it’s about at the end of the day and you have to pick up your brothers. Just going to continue to embrace that role and get better everyday.”

In Thursday’s contest against Nebraska, Curbelo flirted with a triple-double and fueled the Illini to a Senior Night victory. The freshman guard finished with 10 points, a career high 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“[Curbelo] doesn’t fear the moment,” Underwood said. “He’s an alpha. His personality drives those situations.”

Then on Saturday, Curbelo led the Illini with 17 points and 7 rebounds in the 74-69 road win at the-No. 23 Wisconsin.

“[It was] a good day on Saturday,” Underwood said. “I thought Andre Curbelo did a good job of stepping up.”

Curbelo’s efforts were recognized with his first career Big Ten Freshman of the Week award.

Dosunmu’s status unknown

Playing No. 2 Michigan is not easy, especially on the road. What makes it even harder for the Illini is that Tuesday’s game is their fourth in eight days. What might make pulling off the upset against Michigan a near-impossible feat would be National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu missing his third straight game due to a facial injury.

On Monday, Illini head coach Brad Underwood announced that Dosunmu is “day to day,” meaning that his status for Tuesday’s Big Ten Blockbuster is unknown.

The Illini have knocked off Nebraska and Wisconsin in the two games Dosunmu has missed, but beating Michigan, a daunting challenge no matter who is on the floor, without Ayo would be a tall task.

Dosunmu is currently averaging 21 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this season. The star-studded junior has notched two triple-doubles in his last five games played — plus a 30-plus point outing, a game where he hit a dagger to clinch a victory, and a 19-point, 9-rebound effort.

The fact of the matter is, the Illini would love to get their leader back on the floor as soon as possible.

But during his time on the bench, his head coach has still noticed his impact.

“He’s a great leader,” Underwood said. “He can grab guys in a timeout, those subtle whispers in their ear. He sees things he can talk about from his position since he’s been there and done that.”

The Illini hope to have him back for Tuesday’s game, but Underwood has stressed that they will not do anything to jeopardize his health, and won’t play him until he is fully healed or at least risk-free.

But we do know he at least traveled to Ann Arbor.