As I put this list together, one thing that stands out is that all five of these games were on the road. Yes, it’s COVID and there aren’t many — if any — fans in these arenas, but there’s still a difference when you travel.
If you’ve listened to Ayo Dosunmu talk to the media, one thing Ayo constantly talks about is how he tries to model parts of his game after the late Kobe Bryant. Bryant, the ultimate competitor, used to prefer playing games on the road than at home. Why? Heightened focus. The crowd (when there was a crowd), the referees, the unnatural feel of the particular stadium, the fatigue of travel, all of those things are against you when you play a road game. It can bring the best out of a player and a team.
That was clear for these Illini, especially down the stretch during a challenging schedule.
Here they are. The top five games of the 2020-21 regular season.
The Northwestern Wildcats have owned the Illini in football as of late, so this one in particular meant a lot to Illini Nation. Illinois was down 15 at the half, and ended up winning the game 81-56, scoring a whopping 53 points to Northwestern’s 13 in the second half.
It was a swing of play unlike anything Brad Underwood has ever seen he said in his postgame press conference, and it was definitely a pivotal match up in what turned out to be the most successful Illini regular season in over 15 years.
There was a lot of hype in the lead up to this game with the Illini heading to Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on the then=No. 10 Blue Devils. Duke has had an unusually horrible season this year and likely won’t make the NCAA Tournament. No one could have foreseen that this win would actually not be one of the better wins on the Illinois schedule.
It was Illinois’ first win against Duke since 1995, and the 15-point win was the highest margin of victory for either Duke or Illinois in their previous seven games played against one another.
3. Edging out Ohio State 73-68 on the road in the season finale
A matchup and revenge game of top-10 teams and the return of the masked Ayo Dosunmu, this win put the Illini at the 20-win mark for the season. It capped off a three-game road winning streak, all over ranked teams and within a span of just eight days.
The Illini withstood another great game by two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball EJ Liddell, and the win all but guarantees a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament next week. It was a tough, physical game and close throughout. Down 68-64 with under four minutes left, the Illini stepped up their defense and knocked down some big free throws to seal the deal.
There is no exaggerating this — that was the best performance in a Big Ten game I’ve seen the Illini play since the 2005 season. Everything worked. Scoring. Running the court. 27 assists is just a crazy stat.
Dunks. Ally oops. This thing was fun, pretty and mesmerizing all at the same time.
Ayo Dosunmu with the triple-double: 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Cockburn with 22 points, shooting 9-12 from the field. It was the most flawless display of basketball.
“No offense, but without Ayo, I think we’re gonna blow you guys [Illinois] out. We’re on a roll right now.” — Michigan alum friend of mine the morning of the game.
He was wrong. Illinois had the best win of any team at any point this season.
This one felt good. Really good. The Illini were 8-point road underdogs to the Michigan Wolverines without Ayo Dosunmu available to play on ESPN on a Tuesday night. Trent Frazier of yesteryear made a statement with his best game of the season, scoring 22 points and making 6 of his 7 free throws.
The Illini dominated this game from start to finish and controlled every facet of the contest. Twenty-three points is generous. It wasn’t even that close. Not a single Michigan player had a good game.
An Ode To The Broomsticks (Teams the Illini went 2-0 against):
Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, Wisconsin. They all lost twice to the Illini. Sweep that Big Ten floor. Use an extra mop with a concoction of Hoosier, Gopher, Cornhusker, Wildcat, Nittany Lion and Badger tears.
Ayo’s Triple Doubles, Senior Night, Rise of Andre Curbelo, Brad Underwood scream entrances into the locker room post game, Josh Whitman hugs, early non-conference demolitions of North Carolin A&T/Chicago State, Da’Monte Williams’ late-game 3-pointer at Ohio State, Kofi’s monster dunks, Zach Griffith getting in on the massacre in Ann Arbor.