“We didn't come this far to come this far”: Illini In ‘Different’ Era Atop Big Ten

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The last time Illinois fans saw its favorite school at the top of the Big Ten Conference standings Ayo Dosunmu was just starting grade school.

This is certainly a different world everybody connected to the University of Illinois men’s basketball program. According to ESPN Stats and Research, when Illinois (15-5, 7-2) defeated Michigan 64-62 in Crisler Arena Saturday, that was the latest into the season the Illini found itself atop the league since 2006, when it led the conference on January 31. It’s a strangely good feeling for the folks in that locker room.

“It’s different,” Illinois guard Andres Feliz said outside the visiting locker room at Crisler Arena Saturday. “Right now for us, being the No. 1 team (in the Big Ten) is a different feeling but that’s not enough for us. We’re going to keep fighting and win it all. That’s our goal.”

The last time Illinois won at least a share of a Big Ten Conference regular-season championship was the 2004-05 team that spent a majority of the season ranked No. 1 overall in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, won its first 15 conference games and was the only team in school history to play in the national championship game.

By winning on the road against Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan, this 2019-20 Illini team has accomplished something only the 04-05 team did in the last 60 seasons of Illinois basketball history.

“Coach Chin (Coleman), he made a great point earlier,” Dosunmu said Saturday. “He said, 'We didn't come this far to come this far.' We're trying to go bigger and better places. The relationship we have in the locker room, the chemistry we have in the locker room, that's our motto."

When asked what it meant on Jan. 28 to be leading the Big Ten standings by itself, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood did what any coach would do. He tried to underplay the significance of a program rising up after being nationally and regionally irrelevant for half a decade.

“I don’t know. I guess it means The Journey [The Big Ten Network show that details an inside look at conference teams] comes in our locker room after the game,” Underwood said Saturday. “Maybe the networks talk about us as a Top 25 team. I don’t know. We got 11 more to go. I don’t even think like that. I’m thinking about enjoying this one for a minute and figuring out who’s next on our schedule. We got 11 more to go. We’re not even halfway through yet.”

With the Big Ten Conference being the highest-ranked league in college basketball this season, the schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Illini. The Illini will try to extend its winning streak by hosting Minnesota (11-9, 5-5), who is 2-0 against ranked teams this season and directly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, before traveling to No. 18 Iowa (15-5, 6-3) as the Hawkeyes have only lost one game this season inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena (a 93-78 defeat to DePaul on Nov. 11) on Sunday. Following that home-road split week, Illinois hosts the only two Big Ten teams that have handed them losses this season (No. 15 Maryland on Feb. 7 and No. 14 Michigan State on Feb. 11).