A perfect match: Dosunmu brings talent, a will to win to C-U

A perfect match: Dosunmu brings talent, a will to win to C-U

CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu's first practice at Illinois this summer wasn't exactly an eye-opener. He knew what to expect.

Still, there he was fresh off helping Team USA win a gold medal at the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship — which followed a second straight Class 3A state title for Morgan Park — and Dosunmu found himself on the receiving end of some pointed criticism from Illinois coach Brad Underwood demanding more and demanding better.

It's what Dosunmu wanted when he picked the Illini and picked Underwood.

"He really got on me," Dosunmu said. "But I take constructive criticism well. Anything he tells me, I just take it. I'll never talk back because that's not me. I like being coached."

Dosunmu enters his freshman season with immense hype and some serious expectations — at least from outside the program — on his slender shoulders. He checked off a lot of boxes when he committed to Illinois in October 2017 and signed a month later as the first member of the Illini's 2018 recruiting class.

Five-star recruit.

High-level talent.

From Chicago.

Winning pedigree.

"People, maybe they underestimate his love for Illinois," Underwood said. "That was evident in the recruiting process. I think that's something that not just me but our fan base and our university, we can all be excited about. Here's a young guy that wanted to be here. I'm just the recipient of being able to coach him.

"The fact that it's a perfect fit and a match for the style of play and what we do is icing on the cake. There's no doubt he was big. He's a guy that will pay it forward many, many times over. He can be our best recruiter. He can be our best advocate. He's everything you want your program to be about."

Dosunmu understood the challenge he would undertake choosing Illinois. The 6-foot-5 guard had options with more than a dozen power six offers, including teams with more recent success than Illinois. He chose to go his own way.

"I easily could've gone to a blue blood or a program that had been to the tournament," Dosunmu said. "But I'd rather come to my home state and help turn this around and just do it for my family and fans."

Dosunmu certainly has fans. His recruitment was laden with social media well wishes and Illini followers that wanted an autograph or a picture. He was a fan favorite before he even set foot on campus.

"I always stop and take pictures, sign autographs," Dosunmu said. "I just do it because I know me, growing up, I saw people like Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker in my city. That's what I wanted. I wanted pictures and autographs. So I'm just doing the same thing. It's great.

"I guess it comes with the territory of just being who I am. At the end of the day, I embrace it."

Underwood said Dosunmu has been "as advertised" since his arrival in Champaign. The obvious is what he's done on the court as the Illini prepare for the 2018-19 season. It's easy to see how quick he is with the ball in his hands, how he operates in the open court and how good of a passer he truly is.

That's not what's stood out to Underwood the most, though.

"Ayo's greatest attribute may not be anything he does physically," Underwood said. "He's an unbelievable teammate — unbelievable — and his pride for winning is exceptional. Everybody knows how hard he works. He puts in a ton of time.

"He's got one of those personalities where he's magnetic, he draws guys to him, and he makes them better. The USA Basketball coaches said it best. He led them in assists. He's the guy everybody loved to play with."

Dosunmu is also a guy not many people like to play against. Underwood saw it when Illinois was following him on the recruiting trail. The better the opponent Dosunmu faced, Underwood said, the better he played.

That mind-set plays into Underwood knowing he can push Dosunmu. Like that very first practice in mid-June.

"Really good players who understand and get it want to be pushed," the Illinois coach said. "They want their buttons to be pushed, to be challenged. His work ethic — his upbringing maybe — this is a guy that wants to be challenged.

"He's got that little chip on his shoulder. Guys with a chip on their shoulder want to be coached and want to have things expected and demanded of them so they can get to that next level. That's Ayo."

Dosunmu is willing to learn. Willing to put in the work required — and demanded — of him.

"I feel like I come out each and every practice and give my 110 percent and try to dominate each possession," Dosunmu said. "I've put a lot of hard work in, so I just expected that hard work to pay off."

A fountain of youth

Ayo Dosunmu is easily the highest-profile Illinois freshman since Dee Brown. Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY breaks down how the last five top-100 guards fared in their first season with the Illini:

Mark Smith | Class of 2017

The Illinois Mr. Basketball winner out of Edwardsville started his Illinois career with plenty of hype. But after an inconsistent freshman season — from a production and playing time standpoint — he opted to transfer to Missouri.

Jalen Coleman-Lands | Class of 2015

Coleman-Lands was a record-setter as a freshman, besting Cory Bradford's program record for three-pointers made by a first-year player with 87. One season and one coaching change later, he transferred to DePaul.

Malcolm Hill | Class of 2014

Hill broke into Illinois' starting lineup in the final 12 games of the 2013-14 season and averaged 6.5 points and 2.9 rebounds as a starter. That simply set the groundwork for what turned out to be one of the most productive Illini careers of all time.

Kendrick Nunn | Class of 2014

Like Hill, Nunn started the final 12 games of his freshman season, but he made an even bigger leap as a starter, averaging 10.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in that span to earn Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors. He was dismissed after his sophomore year.

Tracy Abrams | Class of 2011

Injuries ultimately extended Abrams' Illinois career to six years, but he started on a strong note. The Chicago native was named the team's MVP more for his steady play than his stats after appearing in all 32 games and making 19 starts.