CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — The 2019-2020 Illini basketball season had higher expectations than any season in more than five years. Some of those expectations were met, others were not. The year might forever be known as the “What Could Have Been” season. Craig Choate takes a look back.
It all started with a trip west, where the Illini went 1-1 in the state of Arizona, capped by a 22-turnover performance against the Wildcats.
“We knew we were going to have some growth here early and go on the road and two great, great environments and you were going to get challenged,” Brad Underwood said.
“It’s early, man,” Trent Frazier said. “We’ve got to take care of the ball, we’ll do that, we just got to continue to get better.”
The Illini returned home and won four games in a row at the State Farm Center, then lost four out of their next seven, including a 14-point meltdown at Maryland.
“I could not be prouder of my guys,” Underwood said. “There was a lot of tears in there, there was a lot of hurt and that makes me feel good, I know we’re on the right page. We grew up a lot tonight.”
Through the slump, Brad Underwood still had faith in what they were doing, despite being 9-5. After a 20-point loss at Michigan State, the Illini flipped a switch. It all started with an absolute drubbing of Purdue at home, by 27 points. The winning continued one the road at Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan. It’s the first time Illinois won at all three of those arenas since 2005, the only other time that has happened by any school in the last 27 years. It was that stretch that the legend of Ayo Dosunmu really started to grow.
“I just wanted to get the last shot. I work on my move, I work on my mid-range game everyday in practice. That’s repetition, that’s hard work, and dedication,” Dosunmu said. “So when I got into my move, I was confident, I believed I was going to make the shot.”
Illinois was riding high at 16-5 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten, in a tie for first. But a new round of tests started from there. A stretch of five games in a row versus ranked teams awaited, including three on the road. To make matters worse, in the middle of that run, Dosunmu went down with a leg injury. Illinois lost the first four games, with Ayo missing the game at Rutgers. But the guard miraculously emerged from the locker room at Penn State and lead the team to their biggest win of the season to date.
“We trust him. We know that he steps up and he makes tough shots and he makes tough plays,” Kofi Cockburn said. “He’s a true leader and a true point guard and we just love when he’s around to give us that confidence, that leadership.”
That win sparked the Illini to a strong finish to the season. Winning five of their last six games, and securing what would have been their first NCAA tournament berth since 2013.
“In all my years and however many more that I have in me, this team will, I will always remember. And it won’t be because we didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament and the NCAA Tournament didn’t happen. It’ll be because of all the fond memories and all the hard work and all the character and all of the wonderful adjectives that go with a team. I had fun this year,” Underwood said.