Richey | Dosunmu thrives when stakes are high

Richey | Dosunmu thrives when stakes are high

Ayo Dosunmu has always had a sense of the moment, able to elevate his game accordingly. Morgan Park's second consecutive state title in March was a perfect example. The Mustangs might have been the clear favorites against Springfield Southeast, but Dosunmu made it a sure thing.

A Class 3A state title game-record 28 points. Plus four rebounds and a pair of assists for good measure.

Was it his monster 51-point effort against Kenwood in December? Or his even bigger 61-point game in the Tarkanian Classic later that same month in Las Vegas? No, but what Dosunmu pulled off against the Spartans was exactly what Morgan Park needed to win its fourth championship in six seasons.

Dosunmu elevated his game another level the last two weeks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. A shot at a roster spot for the U18 National Team and a chance to represent the U.S. at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship on the line necessitated it.

Dosunmu didn't need to prove his worth as a scorer. That work was complete before he landed in Colorado — for Morgan Park in his All-State high school career and on the Nike EYBL circuit playing for Mac Irvin Fire against elite-level competition.

What Dosunmu did instead was prove he could pair lockdown defense with his scoring ability. He has the profile of a perimeter defender — long with a wingspan of 6 feet, 8 inches and plenty of athleticism. Throw in a willingness to shut other players down and actually play that type of defense consistently earned Dosunmu one of those coveted 12 roster spots in his first U.S. Basketball training camp.

Playing in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship will delay Dosunmu's arrival in Champaign. There's no better reason. It's an opportunity that can only sharpen his edge before his Illinois career officially begins.

How he made his Team USA opportunity happen is perhaps even more important than the fact he made the team. It featured plenty of how second-year Illini coach Brad Underwood has tried to shape his roster.

Underwood has regularly likened roster building to fitting together pieces of a puzzle. Dosunmu — the first five-star prospect to buy in — is a major piece of the puzzle that is Illinois' ongoing rebuild.

"In talking to a number of people who watched the trials, there's no doubt that Ayo established himself with his ability to defend and play multiple positions, his competitive edge and his mindset," Underwood said. "The experience of playing international basketball will provide a great opportunity prior to his arrival on campus."

Team USA will open play Sunday in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, having won the last four FIBA Americas U18 Championships and eight of the 10 held since the event began in 1990. Dosunmu is the 10th player from Illinois to make a U18 National Team roster, but only the fourth Illini. Dee Brown and Deron Williams teamed up in Venezuela in 2002 for a third-place finish before hitting Champaign, and Jereme Richmond was on the 2010 gold medal team.

That spells it out fairly clearly. This type of opportunity is rare. Past rosters have featured the likes of Grant Hill, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving — some of the best young players in the country at the time, who went on to rather notable success in college, the NBA or both.

What will become of Dosunmu's Illinois basketball career remains to be seen.

That he elevated his game to a level necessary to make a national team roster, though, is a good sign. One that maybe, just maybe, means he'll be what Illini fans have hoped for — the player that can pull Illinois out of the morass of five straight missed NCAA tournaments and back into the national college basketball conversation.

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605 or via email at srichey@news-gazette.media.