Illini Coach Brad Underwood On Ayo’s National Championship Dreams: “Who would I be to not agree with that?”

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When Brad Underwood officially accepted the job of head coach of Illinois basketball, he talked about being a “dream big” kind of guy. Dreams don’t come much bigger than what Ayo Dosunmu is thinking and talking about for the upcoming season.

In the announcement of his return to the Illini basketball program for his junior season instead of staying in the NBA draft process, Dosunmu immediately spoke about bringing Illinois something no other player who has worn the orange and blue can claim to have accomplished: A national championship.

“I get chills imagining everything that we could accomplish (in the 2020-21 season) and it’s something we deserve,” Dosunmu said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to compete for a national championship in their home state and do it in the way my story was written.”

Even in the highly successful years where Illini basketball qualified for the NCAA tournament every year but three from 1983-2007, memories of March Madness disappointment hang over the program. The Illini have five Final Four appearances but only two since 1952 and just one (2004) since Dosunmu was born on Jan. 17, 2000.

And then the lean years of Illini basketball hit.

Illinois hasn’t finished a season ranked in the final Associated Press poll since 2006, haven’t advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament since Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head led the Illini to a 2005 national championship game appearance. Three head coaches (Bruce Weber, John Groce and interim head coach Jamal Walker) and a 242-198 overall record in the last 13 years over three head-coaching tenures all but removed all the luster from a nationally relevant basketball program Lou Henson, Lon Kruger and Bill Self had built.

“The fans have been through so many tough and rough years as Illini fans,” Dosunmu said Sunday in a Zoom video media conference. “Now they’re finally getting the team they deserve to cheer and show why they’re the best fans in the country."

Underwood, who has never made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament as a head coach, said Monday he’s certainly not going to be the one to put limits on the expectations of his star guard.

“You gotta understand I have so much respect for Ayo and his sacrifice, his level of commitment and who would I be to not agree with that?” Underwood said Monday. “I know how hard he works. Here is a kid who was first-team All-Big Ten in what was the best league in the country. He’s arguably going to be the best guard in the country returning or he’s going to be in that conversation. He knows what we have around him and he truly believes (Illinois winning the national championship is possible) in the bottom of his heart. I have tremendous respect for what he’s saying.”

On Jan. 11, 2019, Underwood woke up the head coach of a team with an embarrassing 4-12 record and an unacceptable overall record of 18-30. Just 570 days later, Underwood is now in control of a team likely to be ranked in the preseason Top 15 for the first time in a decade.

“(The expectations) won’t bother me and I’m going to make sure it won’t bother our guys," Underwood said Monday. "I think the one thing that happens is you’ve got to tune out all the outside noise and I like guys who have a little brazen attitude and a little swagger about them, and to me that’s important.”

With four starters returning from last year’s team that assuredly would’ve ended the program’s seven-year NCAA tournament drought, Underwood acknowledged this is without question his most talented roster as a head coach. Mix in two Top 50 recruits on the perimeter (Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo) and this is easily considered the most talented and deepest Illini roster in 15 years.

Underwood, in his first media comments since Dosunmu and 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn elected to return to skip the NBA draft and return to Illinois, said he and his staff had plotted out initial lineups and roster manipulations for all four scenarios: 1) Without Ayo; 2) Without Kofi; 3) Without Both; 4) With Both. The Illini’s fourth-year head coach joked Monday that door number four was easily the most appealing.

Underwood dodged the questions Monday on how he plans to handle the obvious playing time issue that will come with at least six perimeter players fighting for three perimeter crunch time roles in the Illini lineup.

“I do know this. We’ve got to be tougher than we ever have been, we’ve got to execute better than we ever have and now consistency becomes first and foremost because every night out we’re going to be that team with the bullseye on our back and everyone is going to be out there to try to beat us,” Underwood said. “Great teams handle that piece of it. We’re going to strive for that very thing from day one."