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Ayo took Illinois to new heights. It’s time for the NBA

The Illini legend will get to chase his dream.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday afternoon Ayo Dosunmu officially declared for the 2021 NBA Draft. While he had done that before, it was different this time around. Dosunmu was decked out in a sleek black suit with a white collared shirt and a black tie, and part of his announcement included confirmation that he had hired an agent — thus removing the amateur status next to his name.

Dosunmu committed to Illinois at the Jordan Store in downtown Chicago in October 2017, hammering home the in-state connection he holds with the Illini but also his goal of returning Illinois to where he believed it belongs: national prominence.

Dosunmu’s freshman season, where the Illini went 9-21, saw him average 13.8 points, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The numbers on the stat sheet and Illinois’ record didn't quite jump off the page, but the talent advantage that Dosunmu held over his peers was palpable, something that hadn't been seen in Champaign in a long time.

That season was highlighted by a late-game three-point dagger to sink the Spartans when the Illini upset then top-ten Michigan State at State Farm Center — the game was televised on ESPN and this big shot from a Chicago kid helped start putting Illinois back on the national map.

That freshman campaign brought the first batch of accolades to Dosunmu’s trophy case, including two Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team.

At this point Dosunmu dipped his toes in the NBA waters, ultimately returning to Illinois for his sophomore season, promising that the Illini will dance in the NCAA Tournament.

In the program’s biggest single season turnaround ever, the team went from 21 losses to 21 wins, with Dosunmu a massive reason why.

He once again led the team in scoring, finishing the season averaging 16.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Dosunmu developed a knack for closing out games, hitting clutch shots near or at the buzzer against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and more.

Dosunmu’s trophy case was also a benefit of his sophomore success. The Chicago native earned Illinois Athlete of the Year, the first basketball player to earn the school’s top athletic award since Deron Williams in 2005. He was also named First-Team All-Big Ten (media), Second-Team All-Big Ten (coaches) and took home a Big Ten Player of the Week honor in February.

The Illini finished the season on a roll, winning five of their last six and finishing the regular season ranked in the top-25. The Illini had earned a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament and were closing in on their first NCAA tournament berth since 2013. Then, COVID-19 hit and shut down Dosunmu’s quest for a National Championship.

At this point, he declared for the NBA draft and really tested the waters. Dosunmu got feedback on where he needed to improve his game to get it NBA ready, and he announced his return to Illinois in a video that concluded with him saying, “I need that national championship.”

Dosunmu’s return to Champaign marked the start of the most exciting Illini basketball season since 2005 — and it had similar expectations.

The Illini were ranked wire to wire in Dosunmu’s junior season, including a peak of No. 2 in the nation as late as March, even ahead of eventual champion Baylor. Dosunmu cemented his Illini legend status with his best season yet, as he averaged 20.1 points per game, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game — in fact, Dosunmu became the first player since 2011 to average such numbers per game, and the first Illini to average at least 20 points per game in more than 30 years.

Dosunmu’s excellence caught national attention, as he ranked second in the Big Ten in both points and assists and he tallied six double-doubles along the way. In addition to that, he recorded the program’s third and fourth triple-double ever, joining Magic Johnson as the only player to record two triple-doubles in one season in Big Ten league play. Dosunmu finished the season as the program’s all time leading scorer for three-year players with more than 1,500 points.

Whether it was late game shots, flashy dunks, mid-range buckets or layups in transition, fans and media alike all over the country began to appreciate the craft of Dosunmu.

His trophy case became jam-packed, as the junior was a consensus NCAA first-team All-American and took home USA Today National Player of the Year, the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s best point guard, four Big Ten Player of the Week awards, and was named a finalist for the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy and Oscar Robertson Award, all of which he placed second for.

But Dosunmu got to fulfill his promise, as the Illini danced for the first time in nearly a decade. The Illini won the Big Ten Tournament — and Dosunmu was named Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player — for the first time since 2005, and they earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

While Dosunmu’s promise for a national championship fell short, what he did in Champaign was nothing short of miraculous. It’s hard to put into words just how much Ayo’s contributions meant to the program. His time at Illinois was nothing short of heroic — fitting, considering his last few games were played in a mask. His meticulous worth ethic, his impressive maturity, his dedication to his craft and his pure excellence on and off the basketball court were a treat to watch.

Dosunmu delivered time and time again, helping to resurrect a once historic program — with the help of Brad Underwood and his teammates. Underwood may have been the builder, but Dosunmu helped to lay a foundation for a successful future of Illinois Basketball. Gone are the days where the Illini have a special team once every 16 years — now, because of Dosunmu, the Illini have a program that is headed toward sustained success.

It felt like every time Dosunmu elevated to new heights in his game, the program took a leap forward as well.

A kid from Chicago made the choice to stay home and play for Illinois. Now, the Illini are back on the national stage — in good hands — and the player who helped them get there is headed for the NBA.

No. 11 will hang in the rafters at State Farm Center soon, and his name will sit on the backs of our brand new jerseys no matter what team calls his name on draft night in July.

As Dosunmu continues to make his own dreams come true, we thank him helping ours get there as well.

We’ll get started on that statue ASAP.