COLUMN: Is Ayo Dosunmu Going To Show Up? And If Not, What Then?

Matthew Stevens

When asked Friday morning who on this Illinois team was capable of picking up everybody when everything goes wrong, Illini head coach Brad Underwood had no answer.

“That’s what we’re looking for. That’s what we’re continually looking for,” Underwood said Friday. “We need that player who understands preparation is the key to success. It’s not just about flipping that switch on game day and being able to go do that. In the meantime, I’ll be handling those responsibilities.”

It was an honest and yet, dooming assessment just eight games in for this 2019-20 squad. 

The brutal honesty is Underwood’s answer Friday needed to be one word, one syllable and three letters: AYO. 

And it just can’t be.

When Ayo Dosunmu decided to skip the draft process and return to Champaign-Urbana for his sophomore season, it was seen as a program-defining move for the Illini. They had their star back. The guy who would solve most, if not all, problems simply with his presence with the basketball in his hands was back.

The Ayo who had a game-high 24 points in a win over Michigan State, lit up Madison Square Garden for 20 points in a win over Maryland and was the first true freshman to lead the Illini in scoring in a season was the critical piece of this program rebuild.

Illinois basketball was going to get to ride this player, who was projected as a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to its first NCAA Tournament experience since 2013. This is what leaders do. Underwood talks all the time about Thomas Walkup (his veteran star at Stephen F. Austin), Jawun Evans (his star point guard at Oklahoma State) and even brought up Tom Brady Friday morning. When everything is going sideways, it’ll be okay because your star has the ball in his hands.

Through nine games of the 2019-20 season, that version of Ayo Dosunmu has been officially M.I.A. with fans hoping he’ll one day return. Sure, there’s a player wearing a No. 11 jersey but it’s not the Ayo we were promised and saw in big games last season. He’s not going by people off the dribble. The jump shot still doesn’t scare anybody and rightfully so as the sophomore is shooting just 10 of 35 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range. His decision-making skills with the basketball are questionable at best as his assist-to-turnover ratio is 1-to-1.

Illinois was going through a stagnant offense leading to a collapse of epic proportions against an undefeated No. 3-ranked program in their building Saturday. The Illini, which were 8-22 in its last 30 games against Power 5 Conference opponents, needed a go-to player to calm them down, keep Maryland at bay and just to feel good about that player having the ball in his hands.

One day before this loss at Maryland where Dosunmu went 4 of 12 for nine points in 35 minutes, Dosunmu was asked by local television if he was pressing and gave a one-word answer: “No.”

Illinois fans might want to hope he was lying. Because if he was telling the truth, then the next follow-up question might be much more difficult to swallow: What if this version of Ayo is what Illinois is getting this season? What happens then?