Tate | Outlook brightens for Illini, but next few weeks will be even more revealing

Tate | Outlook brightens for Illini, but next few weeks will be even more revealing

A caustic tweet, soon removed, revealed the swelling Illini football-basketball frustration:

“Being an Illini fan is kind of like slowly dying in a field during the Civil War.” 

Whoa there. It’s OK to be painfully disillusioned, but it isn’t appropriate to compare fun-and-games with the brutality of war. And this misguided offering might have waited for Illinois’ venture into the Big Apple, because the performance (not the result exactly, but the performance) in destroying Maryland 78-67 on Saturday afternoon might have changed the future outlook.

Careful here. Some of us envisioned the tunnel brightening 10 days ago against Minnesota, a 95-68 rout that had fans forgetting that Illinois was a punching bag for neighbors Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin, was victimized at Notre Dame and in the shiny, new Northwestern palace, and ran aground in Chicago and St. Louis, not to mention a trio of shortfalls in Maui.

That’s more like it

Millions of folks who might otherwise be unaware of current Illini inefficiencies saw them splashed on their front doorstep.

But not New Yorkers at Madison Square Garden Saturday. An 8.5-point underdog against the nation’s No. 13 team, the Illini forced 21 turnovers and made shots (21 of 23 free throws) that wouldn’t fall against Wisconsin at home this past Wednesday night.

Freshman Ayo Dosunmu single-handedly brought Illinois back from a 32-21 deficit to within 34-30 at half, and that’s when Tevian Jones and Andres Feliz turned the UI basketball world on its axis ... Jones finally emerging out of a self-induced fog (eight-game suspension) to drain four treys while “pit bull” Feliz penetrated for game-turning runners.

It was a tall order to handle Bruno Fernando (19 points) and Anthony Cowan (18) at their best, and coach Brad Underwood tried everything, including a seldom-used triangle-and-2. The result: Maryland, ahead 52-48 with 12:22 to go, went dead in managing just three more field goals.

Meanwhile, Feliz, showing why some rated him the No. 1 junior college point guard last season, was a whirlwind as he and Jones combined for 33 points, 27 of them in the second half.

Said Underwood: “It took them awhile to get their bearings and see what Big Ten basketball is about.”

Upcoming games at Minnesota on Wednesday night and next Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center against Nebraska will determine whether this is a trend or a short-lived anomaly. But this much is clear: Jones and Feliz will be front and center.

Draft prospects

The UI’s basketball future seemed to dim amid recent scuttlebutt that Dosunmu — 148 points in the last eight games — might possibly turn pro.

Face it, any player who is worthy of first-round NBA draft status must consider it. The 30th pick last year, Villanova’s Omari Spellman, is assured of $3.6 million for his first two seasons with Atlanta, even though he spent a brief injury-recovery time with Erie in the G-League earlier this month. And he’ll receive $9.3 million over four years if the Hawks decide to keep him.

Mock drafts are not projecting Dosunmu among the 30 who’ll receive automatic guaranteed contracts. Indiana’s Romeo Langford is the only cinch Big Ten first-rounder, with Fernando and Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis probable. Two of the league’s most touted stars, Ethan Happ of Wisconsin and Carsen Edwards of Purdue, don’t fit the NBA mold.

Four injured standouts — Darius Garland of Vanderbilt, Bol Bol of Oregon, Jontay Porter of Missouri and Killian Tillie of Gonzaga (he’s back) — will clog the first round despite their physical problems. Garland just dropped out of school to prepare himself for the draft.

Injury concerns will be a consideration for Dosunmu, who missed virtually all of the Final Four with Morgan Park’s champs in 2017 and a long stretch of games last season. He has missed one game at Illinois. As we see in football, pro money impacts how young men finish out their college careers.  

Up and down in the Big Ten

Isn’t it essentially true that players make successful coaches, and not vice versa.

— Ohio State newcomer Chris Holtmann was 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year with a 15-3 conference record. And his Buckeyes started 12-1 this season before the departure of Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams — that’s 41 points and 17 rebounds — hit home. The Buckeyes dropped five straight before getting their first win in 2019 at Nebraska on Saturday.

— Indiana fans rejoiced when Archie Miller replaced Tom Crean, much of that optimism based on an upswing in home state recruiting. But Miller’s Hoosiers were a mediocre 16-15 last season, and they’ve fallen into a six-game tailspin. Worst loss came Friday night at home where Michigan streaked ahead 17-0 and won handily, 69-46 (69-46!?) with Brazdeikis, who is contending for Big Ten freshman-of-the-year, outscoring a slumping Langford, 20 to 9.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com