I’ve held up on writing this for a few days because I needed time to reflect on this Illinois Fighting Illini basketball season. But they’ve just played their first NCAA tournament game in 2,917 days, so now is probably as good a time as any.
I wrote a couple of years ago about how Brad Underwood was building a foundation of sorts as his young, inexperienced, and overwhelmed team had shown tremendous growth from the beginning of the season. The Illinois Fighting Illini basketball program had long lost its ways. They were a decade removed from being seen as a respectable team in what had become the best conference in all of college basketball.
However, what I was not expecting at all was Underwood transforming the pond scum of the Big Ten into a bonified championship-contending team. It’s so bizarre because I continue to stare at the “1” next to “Illinois” on the NCAA bracket and it still hasn’t dawned on me that this team is five more wins away from immortality.
I have so many thoughts about this team and how successful this season has been. It obviously starts with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn rescinding their draft declarations last spring and getting ready at one big push for college basketball glory.
I feel like my heart stopped when Dosunmu announced his return last summer and Cockburn the following suit a day later. What both guys have done this year has been nothing short of remarkable. There really isn’t much I can say that the national sports media hasn’t already covered. Those two are special and provide such a unique combination that no team in the country can effectively counter when firing on all cylinders. There is a reason why guys like Jon Rothstein and Gary Parrish predict that Illinois will be the last team standing at the end of the tournament.
No matter what happens to them when they eventually go pro, the numbers 11 and 21 will be hung up in the State Farm Center rafters when it’s all said and done. Two All-American performers who helped Underwood return Illinois to respectability.
But the storylines with this team almost seem endless.
How could I not wax poetic when it comes to the two seniors in Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams? Two dudes who saw this program at its lowest when they were just exiting puberty. Frazier went from leading all Big Ten freshmen in scoring to making it his goal to be part of the Big Ten All-Defense team (mission accomplished). ‘Monte, son of Illini great Frank Williams, had a lofty reputation to live up to. The guy has turned into one of Underwood’s most reliable players and has shot nearly 55% from long range this season.
Last year was supposed to be their year to experience the postseason play that excites any college basketball player. It truly warms my heart to see those two get the opportunity to play on the big stage for the first time in their careers. Safe to say their patience has been rewarded. I could talk about these two forever, but that’s because they deserve it.
And it isn’t all about the elder statesmen…
One of the things I also look forward to is watching Andre Curbelo dazzle the nation with his seemingly bottomless bag of offensive tricks. Going into the season, I was woefully unprepared for ‘Belo to run away with Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year. He is undeniably one of the most fun players in the country to watch, and his fingerprints are all over this team’s success.
Adam “Ace” Miller was seen as the crown jewel of Underwood’s most recent recruiting class. The 2020 Illinois Mr. Basketball opened up his campaign with a record-breaking performance against North Carolina A&T but has since cooled off. However, when he scores double digits, the team is 10-1. So when he has a good day, so does the team.
I could’ve lumped him in with Trent and ‘Monte, but Giorgi Beshanisvilli has one of the most important jobs on this team as Kofi’s backup. A true fan favorite had also seen this rebuild from the ground up, Giorgi has literally never had a bad day in his life. It’s hard not to think about his infectious personality, but he’s grown each year in Champaign. He started every single game his freshman year, took a backseat to Cockburn last season, and embraced his role off the bench. This season has been especially tough for the Georgia native, given he hasn’t seen his family in well over a year.
But he’s had his Illini family with him the whole time, and the sacrifices they’ve made have lead to this moment.
I was genuinely concerned when this team was 9-5. I felt we had vastly overrated them and their preseason expectations. Clearly, they were a tournament team, but they weren’t a team that could go all the way.
But then something happened. I don’t know if all the switches managed to flip themselves or not but when Dosunmu suffered a concussion and a broken nose against Michigan State, this team could’ve curled up without their leader. Instead, they decided to blast Michigan in the most impressive win out of any team this season and fight their way with the “Masked Man” to the Big Ten title.
His three-game absence managed to make this team better in a week’s time. There is no other squad in the country that has more Quad 1 victories than Illinois. They are true contenders and they took care of the first test of the Big Dance. Such a long way from where they were two years ago, but here we are. Five more to go. Loyola-Chicago has a warm spot in our hearts thanks to their 2018 tournament run.
But they’re going up against a program that has finally completed its resurrection after years of being the conference doormat.
These guys are ready.
They’re ready to go all the way.