Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball: Something is happening in Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, IL - FEBRUARY 05: Ayo Dosunmu #11 and Giorgi Bezhanishvili #15 of the Illinois Fighting Illini celebrate after defeating the Michigan State Spartan at State Farm Center on February 5, 2019 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
CHAMPAIGN, IL - FEBRUARY 05: Ayo Dosunmu #11 and Giorgi Bezhanishvili #15 of the Illinois Fighting Illini celebrate after defeating the Michigan State Spartan at State Farm Center on February 5, 2019 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

The 2018 Maui Invitational showed just how far the Illinois Fighting Illini were from being a competitive team. But the last couple weeks have shown just how far they’ve come since.

In what was the strongest field in Maui history, Illinois happened to be the weakest link. Seriously, just look at this lineup: Arizona, Auburn, Duke, Gonzaga, Iowa State, San Diego State, and Xavier.

Meanwhile, Illinois rounded the teams out, going 0-3 on the week. While there was a valiant effort against the eventual champion, Gonzaga, the rest of the tournament showed a familiar brand of Illinois basketball: undisciplined, immature, and hard to watch.

The young squad limped into Big Ten play with a 4-7 non-conference record with very little promise. This included brutal losses to Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and always hated Mizzou in the annual “Braggin’ Rights” duel.

Conference play hasn’t been much better as the freshmen and the sophomore-led group has gone 5-8. To keep things in perspective (and to be fair), their strength of schedule is amongst the highest in the nation. Nevertheless, Illini faithful nationwide had started to lose hope in this program, that it’s in the worst shape that it’s been in quite some time:

While there is some truth to that, things maybe have turned a corner. The last two weeks have started to show that just maybe coach Brad Underwood has solved the mystery with this group. Over their last five conference games, they’ve gone 4-1 with two top 15 victories over Maryland and Michigan State.

The latter was largely seen as their biggest victory since Tyler Griffey sawed-offed #1 Indiana at the buzzer in 2013. For what feels like eons, no matter who was the coach, Illinois was consistent at losing big, close games (more on that later). It looked and felt like the same damn story when they hosted the Spartans Wednesday night, blowing a double-digit halftime lead with only minutes left.

These boys have grown up in a major way this year.

But, facing against an all-time coaching legend in Tom Izzo and his talented roster, they stood tall when backed into a corner. Potential NBA draft prospect freshman Ayo Dosunmu had one of his several impressive performances against the Spartans, tallying 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting with four treys (and made Dan Dakich look like an idiot at a key moment):

Even Saturday’s overtime shoot-out with an improving Rutgers program showed the Fighting Illini’s resolve is growing. While coming away with a hard-fought victory against one of the weaker Big Ten programs shouldn’t mean much, it means a lot to these guys.

Especially when you consider the other star freshmen, Georgian legend Giorgi Bezhanishvili, broke the freshmen single-game scoring record with a Herculean effort (35 points on 14-of-18 shooting with seven rebounds). Coming from a guy who barely has any info about him or listing him as the 370th(!!!) prospect overall in the 2018 class, that’s unheard of.

He and Dosunmu have been such revelations to this Illini basketball program. Perhaps giving us hope after all these years.

You see, it hasn’t been very easy as a University of Illinois alumni. If you’re unaware of how the team has played dating back to the tail end of the Bruce Weber era, allow me to elaborate. This program is notorious for losing close games in a painful, bubble-bursting fashion. Be it Weber, John Groce, or Underwood, it’s been rough sledding for a while now.

No matter how solid the recruiting classes were or how easy or hard the schedule would be, there were seasons where I look back and wonder “How did it end so painfully? Where did it go wrong?”.

Illinois Fighting Illini, Kipper Nichols, Ayo Dosunmu
(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

But maybe, just maybe, with the recent stretch of success, the Illini are starting to turn something of a corner. Sure, they don’t have NCAA March Madness hopes in their immediate future; they may not even have NIT Tournament hopes.

But the best thing they can do for themselves is to close out their season strong. There are seven Big Ten games left on the radar, and they have the Conference tournament at the United Center.

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Things have been rough this year, but herein lies hope within this roster. The building blocks are in place for a program that has seen some trying times over the last decade; a resurgence is coming into focus.

Something is happening in Champaign, Illinois…

Something special…