2020 Illinois Fighting Illini : A Return to Glory
It’s been way, WAY too long since Illinois basketball was in the mix in March. This Spring should be a blast now that Coach Brad Underwood has brought winning back to Champaign-Urbana. It’s been seven years (2013) since Illinois made the NCAA Tournament. It’s been eleven years (2009) since the Illini were a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
In my opinion, I would say this is the best Illinois team since 2006, which went 26-7 under Coach Bruce Weber in Dee Brown’s and James Augustine’s senior seasons. That team tied for 2nd in the B1G and lost in the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament to Brandon Roy’s Washington Huskies in a hard-fought death match. (Remember that guy Roy who played for Portland in the NBA? He was a stud.) Since then, only the 2007, ’09, ’11, and ’13 teams even made the tournament. This is the first Illini team to finish over .500 in the conference since 2010. That’s nuts, and sad. It’s unfathomable to those of us that grew up with Illinois staking it’s claim as a dominant, and at times, elite program.
When Coach Underwood was hired in March 2017, we wrote about how excited we were. Call it the #WeWillWin ideology. In 2018 we were pumped but finished 14-18 overall, 4-14 B1G in Underwood’s first year. Growing pains, without Kirk Cameron and Alan Thicke (inside joke). 2019 was another year of growth. Small results were there but were hard to see due to one of the top five hardest schedules in the country (12-21 overall, 7-13 B1G). And now, three years from when this journey began, we’ve been proven right. As fans, we’re reaping the rewards from all of these coaches’ and players’ hard work. Supposedly Coach Underwood conducts the strictest and hardest practices that some of these broadcasters have ever seen. I’ve heard it mentioned several times throughout the games this season. I love Coach Underwood’s style and demeanor. He is confident and seems to demand effort and respect. I have no doubts about him leading the Fighting Illini to future glory beyond this year. He has more top recruits lined up for next year. But that’s something to talk about down the road.
For now, this young team finished the 2020 regular season with a 21-10 record overall, 13-7 in the Big Ten Conference. Finishing 4th in the B1G regular season was quite an accomplishment given how deep the league was this year. The Big Ten is clearly the best conference in college basketball. Heading into the B1G Conference Tournament this weekend, the 4th seeded Fighting Illini have a legitimate chance to win the Tourney Title. It will take three wins in three days over three really tough teams, but you never know. No matter what happens, I’m proud of what this team has already accomplished.
I could see this year’s Illini team losing the first game on Friday or going all the way to Sunday’s Championship game, even winning it. The likely road will be a rematch with the hated and thorny #5 seed Iowa on Friday, then perennial overachiever #1 seed Wisconsin on Saturday in the semifinals, and then either #2 Michigan State or #3 Maryland in the B1G Championship. That’s a tough road to glory but why not Illinois?
We have a first team All Big Ten player in sophomore guard #11 Ayo Dosunmu and plenty of young talent around him. B1G Freshman Player of the Year #21 Kofi Cockburn is a meat eater inside. Surrounding them are #1 Trent Frazier, #20 Da’Monte Williams, and #10 Andres Feliz rounding out the starting five. Bench guys #0 Alan Griffin, #2 Kipper Nichols, and #15 Giorgi Bezhanishvili provide depth as the main rotational players.
I love these guys. Andres Feliz reminds me of, wait for it….Dee Brown. I know he’s not as good as Dee but he just looks like him and resembles him in style. I love his heart, especially for a little guy. I love his floaters in the lane. That’s his sweet spot, just inside the free throw stripe, in the paint. It’s basically that spot with the B1G logo. I don’t know the numbers, but Feliz seems like he makes 85% of those shots.
How much did Alan Griffin improve since last year? You can see his confidence soaring through the roof. Da’Monte Williams became a really solid player over the last two years. He doesn’t score much, but he’s a key cog in this group. He plays defense and he rebounds. Kipper Nichols is a senior now and still has up and down moments but he has skills and he’s tough. As for Cockburn, he’s a beast down low. He’s just a freshman and we have to remember that when we see many of his unorthodox moments. He too often goes for the soft layup rather than the monster jams. He needs to dunk the ball more! By shooting it rather than dunking, he gives the defense the chance to make a play. If you dunk, you’ll get a foul at least, and maybe an “and one” opportunity. Cockburn has so much potential but he hasn’t realized it to it’s fullest yet. He needs at least one more year of seasoning in college, maybe more. If he stays two or three more years we’re really gonna have something brewing in Chambana.
As for Ayo, what a great kid. I love this guy. He’s a clutch player and a future NBA draft pick. You can just tell, by the way he carries himself. His moves are more advanced than his competitors. He is so fast. I love when he runs the fast break. He is deadly on the right side of the floor. You’d think the defense would be trying to force him to his left but maybe they just can’t get there, or maybe Ayo just lures them that way and wins on the left side. Either way, when he gets that step and extends his long arms, watch out. It’s a hoop for I-L-L. Ayo is clearly the best player on the team and a program changer. He wants the ball in the big moments. He wants to be the man…. and he is. Underwood successfully recruiting Ayo was the best thing to happen to Illini basketball since Bill Self’s recruitment of all those stars such as Dee, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Brian Cook, Frank Williams (Da’Monte’s dad), Cory Bradford, Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin, etc. in the early to mid 2000s.
With Coach Underwood leading the way, these Fighting Illini could go far this Spring. I’ll be picking Illinois to win the B1G Conference Tournament this weekend. Why not right? As for the subsequent NCAA Tournament, as a probable #5, #6, or #7 seed, I see Illinois winning at least one game and maybe a second, possibly upsetting a team in the 2nd round. Either way, this year is sure to be memorable, and quite welcome for us Illinois alumni and fans who have waited a long time for a toast of champagne so we could drink in celebration of our favorite team, the Fighting Illini of Illinois. This 2020 version is the one that will forever be remembered as the one that brought back the glory. Enjoy!