As the push toward a national championship continues for the Illini, they face a steep challenge in Loyola Chicago for in-state bragging rights.
The Ramblers are having a great year, winning the Mountain Valley Conference and finishing the regular season ranked No. 17 in the country. According to KenPom metrics, Loyola Chicago is a top-ten team with a top-five defense — so Sunday’s contest will be no breeze for the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region.
“It can’t be anything but great for the state,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood ahead of the game.
The Ramblers and the Illini combine to have 14 players from Illinois in the NCAA Tournament and that in-state pipeline is why this 2021 season is the first since 2007 with more than one team from Illinois playing deep into March.
“Two teams getting good recruits, great coaching staff, great culture,” said junior guard Ayo Dosunmu. “Loyola has a great culture, and that’s what it takes to be successful at this level.”
Part of the reason Dosunmu decided to come to Illinois was trying to put Illinois back on the national map, but what doesn't often get told is the fact that watching Loyola go on a cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018 even more so solidified his goals of where he wanted take Illinois.
“I remember tweeting it, like that was my goal,” Dosunmu said. “That’s what I wanted to get Illinois to, you know, Final Four. The NCAA Tournament where, you know, we’re putting the whole city on notice, because that’s how it is in Chicago. Whenever someone is Chicago is doing something successful, doing something big, the whole city rallies around them. So I just wanted to be in a situation where I could be a part of something like that and that’s why I always root for my city and my state because you know when its my time to go around, you know, I would expect the same love.”
Another aspect of Dosunmu’s commitment to Illinois included a commitment to head coach Brad Underwood. During Saturday’s zoom conference, the All-American had nothing but praise for his coach.
“Coach Underwood, he just instills, you know, confidence in you. He just pushes you to be tough. Tough as nails,” Dosunmu said. “Like he pushes to get the maximum effort, the maximum capabilities out of you.
“He’s never satisfied,” Dosunmu said. “We were winning by like 25-30 (against Drexel) and he was still coaching hard, still going off.”
And the Illini love it.
“He knows we would run through a wall for him, so that's how he coaches us.”
Dosunmu made mention that life in the bubble has been good. He has gotten three full meals a day and time to play video games. But the Illini haven't lost their focus, which is why watching film three times a day is part of the norm for the Big Ten Tournament champions. That film study is how the Illini dissected the Ramblers, and analyzed their highly ranked defense.
“I think they're well connected, they're well coached, and they're a veteran ball club so they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Dosunmu said.
But it may be the Ramblers offense that is the harder aspect to prepare for, as it is one of the few in college basketball that is run through its center.
“They have a very unique offense,” Dosunmu said.
Senior Cameron Krutwig is averaging just below 15 points per game, and close to seven rebounds each contest. But what makes the six foot, nine inch big man so difficult to game plan for is he anchors the offense, handling the ball more than most centers and averaging nearly three assists per game.
“He’s a point-center,” Underwood said. “He’s a unique guy that they run offensive through. He might have the best floater in college basketball. He’s an excellent passer. He sees things at a pace that’s a step ahead.”
Many people slept on Loyola in 2018, but Illinois won't make that same mistake.
“The one message we keep telling our players is everyone here is very good,” Underwood said. “If you don’t come to play, you go home.”
Dosunmu faces off against “Main Man”
Dosunmu, who flirted with a triple-double as he racked up 17 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in the Illini’s tournament opening win against Drexel, has been known recently as the Masked Man. Sunday, he’ll get the chance to go up against his “Main Man”.
Chicago native and Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year Lucas Williamson and Dosunmu have a friendship that spans over a decade. Before parting ways for Morgan Park and Whitney Young for high school, the pair played basketball on the same youth teams back in the day.
“That’s my main man,” Dosunmu said. “Lucas and I go back decades ago. We started playing basketball together in the same leagues and his family and my family are tight. We were close friends growing up and we played together for a long time.”
But as the Illini look to punch their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen, Dosunmu hasn’t reached out to Williamson — and vice versa — and has kept his focus on his team. But he did express that there was no ill-will to his old friend.
“That’s my guy, like 10-15 years strong,” Dosunmu said. “The love is still there, he knows that.”