Chemistry big part of Illini hoops' resurgence

Chemistry big part of Illini hoops' resurgence

CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu has made a habit of taking one of his teammates out for lunch on a weekly basis. It's the Illinois freshman guard's chance to get to know them better. Find out their story.

Illini coach Brad Underwood got his turn Monday — the day before Illinois knocked off No. 9 Michigan State.

"Each week I try to take a player out to lunch and just sit down and talk to them one-on-one to get to know them better, get to know their journey and all," Dosunmu said.

"It was coach's turn. I told him, 'I'm just listening to you. You tell me everything about you.' We talked for about an hour."

Dosunmu's willingness to reach out to his teammates and coaches — make a connection deeper than what they have on the basketball court — isn't a rarity with this Illinois team. The chemistry the Illini have this season has become a regular topic of conversation, and it held the team together through a rough 2 1 / 2 months.

It's a big reason why Illinois (8-15, 4-8 Big Ten) has won three of its last four games and will go for three straight victories at 3 p.m. Saturday against Rutgers (11-11, 4-8) at State Farm Center.

"It's not just unique," Underwood said. "It's pretty special when you get a young guy that isn't just thinking about himself. It's more about his teammates. It's more about how can he help them. It's more about his coaches.

"That same day I get a text from (freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili) in the middle of the day just asking how my day was going. When you get young guys that are so selfless and not selfish, you've got a chance. That's something that Ayo's come up with on his own, and it's a brilliant idea."

Dosunmu said he learned a lot about Underwood in their lunch together. From his first coaching job to the way he coaches.

"Him being a head coach, a lot of people really wouldn't talk to him like that because he's really been focused on us a lot," Dosunmu said. "I wanted him to be able to sit and just talk."

Open lines of communication are key for Illinois this season. The Illini basically started from scratch on building team chemistry and culture with eight newcomers joining just four returning scholarship players as the roster was almost completely overhauled in the offseason.

Senior guard Aaron Jordan said building that team chemistry took "a lot of patience." Underwood's system was new for the majority of the team. The returning players, Jordan said, knew success wouldn't come immediately. They'd been in the same spot a year prior in Underwood's first season at Illinois.

The Illini newcomers had a realistic take on that process, too.

"If you look at it, every good team, when you have a lot of new pieces, it takes a while for them to gel," Dosunmu said. "We went through our growing pains. Now, I feel like we have our roles solidified and we know that defense wins games. We're trying to lock in defensively, and that opens things up for us offensively."

Adonis De La Rosa was another one of those eight newcomers. The Illini are the graduate transfer center's fourth team. The energy he saw from the team his first day stood out.

"You're always going to have some type of obstacles in the way until you find your niche," De La Rosa said. "Once you find that thing that makes the team go, it's tough to beat."

What the Illini have done off the court, though, has been just as important. Dosunmu's lunches aren't all. The Illinois players spend plenty of time together away from Ubben Basketball Complex or State Farm Center. Their ability to be vulnerable with each other — open up teammate to teammate — has been important in their growth this season.

"Vulnerability is a lot," Jordan said. "A lot of guys see that as weakness, but we see that as getting better. It's like, 'I'm struggling. Who do I go to? Who do I ask? Who can I admit to that I need help in this situation?'

"When guys start to do that and start to ask questions — let this whole toughness guard down that society really puts on us — I think that's where we elevated. That's why you see us putting together things now, winning games and just moving forward."