Oh how I miss this team.
As we wait for what should be another exciting basketball season for Brad Underwood and Co., it’s never a bad time to look back at our beloved 2020-21 team.
Particularly, that night they humiliated the Michigan Wolverines on their home floor.
It’s Feb. 11, 2021.
Illinois and Michigan are set to face off...or maybe not.
The game is postponed. The Michigan athletic department is coming off a two-week COVID pause and the basketball team is set to miss its fifth consecutive game.
Never mind the fact that the pause actually ended four days before the game was scheduled to tip off and Michigan just didn’t quite feel like they were ready to play.
According to a statement Saturday from Michigan, Illinois and the Big Ten, the game is being postponed due to “return-to-play planning.” The Wolverines said they “expect” to return for their Valentine’s Day matchup at Wisconsin on Feb. 14.
Anyway, more fuel to a rapidly-growing fire.
Fast forward to March 2 and the stakes have been raised quite a bit.
No. 4 Illinois (18-6, 14-4 Big Ten) versus No. 2 Michigan (18-1, 13-1 Big Ten) is now a Top-5 showdown with some major trash talking having been built up, both teams fighting for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and (what should’ve been) Big Ten title implications.
The Wolverines, losers of just one game all year, are led by a familiar face in All-American Hunter Dickinson (14.1 PPG), along with fellow All-Big Ten players Isaiah Livers (13.1 PPG) and Franz Wagner (12.5 PPG).
The Illini entered the contest red hot, having won 9 of their last 10 games and reaching their highest AP Poll ranking of the season — 4th.
One problem, however.
First-Team All-American Ayo Dosunmu is announced as unavailable for the game prior to tip off as he recovers from a broken nose he suffered a week prior against Michigan State.
There had been some building hope that Ayo may make a heroic return against the Wolverines but alas, he couldn’t quite get clearance from the doctors.
An already tall task just got a whole lot tougher.
Illinois and Michigan were locked into a tight, defensive battle for 10 minutes, as Trent Frazier’s jumper with 9:54 to play in the first half broke a 10-10 tie.
From there, it was all Illini.
Illinois closed the first half on a 23-12 run to take an 11-point lead into the break, thanks in large part to an elite defensive performance that completely stifled Michigan’s plethora of scorers.
They never looked back in the second half, building leads of as many as 28 and ultimately walking out of Crisler Center with a 76-53 victory.
A result that even the most loyal Illini fan couldn’t honestly say they saw coming.
Trent Frazier was the star of the show in Ayo’s absence, pouring in 22 points and completely taking over the game in the second half.
No. 4 Illinois blows out No. 2 Michigan, 76-53 @marchmadness— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 3, 2021
Trent Frazier: 22 PTS | 4 REB pic.twitter.com/mnEY5PXS7i
Andre Curbelo added 17 points of his own, and Kofi Cockburn got the best of Hunter Dickinson in the first of a few matchups, holding the Michigan big man to 6 points on 1-for-8 shooting.
“I didn’t find out Ayo wasn’t playing until 40 minutes on the clock,” Juwan Howard said postgame. “Give Illinois credit — they had other guys step up in his absence. Trent Frazier, Curbelo, Kofi. They did a great job of leading their team to a victory tonight,”
As the postseason approached, the Illini showed the country what they were made of and made a statement that no matter who was available, they were one of the best teams in college basketball.
“We’re the hardest-playing team in the country. That’s our statement,” Frazier said. “Even without our best player, we’ve got a lot of guys on this team.”
What a special, special group this was. They deserved so much better than what happened a few weeks later against L****a.
On the bright side, it’s three years later and Juwan Howard has still yet to beat Brad Underwood.
Here’s hoping that streak continues next season.