One track mind: Chicago native Dosunmu's sole focus on keeping Illini's season alive

One track mind: Chicago native Dosunmu's sole focus on keeping Illini's season alive

CHICAGO — Ayo Dosunmu’s first return home this season didn’t go particularly well. The Illinois freshman guard took just three shots and scored just six points as the Illini let a halftime lead slip away in a 77-67 loss to Ohio State in early December at the United Center.

Dosunmu isn’t really caught up in putting on for his city as Illinois returns to Chicago for the Big Ten tournament. What matters more to the former Morgan Park star is the Illini (11-20) extending their season as long as possible starting with today’s 8 p.m. opening round game against rival Northwestern (13-18) at the United Center.

“It’s either play or end your season,” Dosunmu said. “That right there should be motivation enough if you really love the game. 

“I really wouldn’t care where (the tournament) could be played at. It’s just a fact we know what we have to do to keep our season alive.

“The pressure, I embrace it, knowing every four minutes — each segment — you’re just playing to continue your season. It’s actually fun and getting me excited knowing really no one thinks we can do it. We really have nothing to lose.”

Still, Illinois faces some long odds to reach its goal of a Big Ten tournament championship. Losing the final game of the regular season at Penn State cost the Illini a Wednesday bye. Now they face the prospect of having to win five games in five days.

Illinois was a rough start to the second half away from a five-game winning streak earlier this season. Riding a four-game streak into a rematch with Wisconsin in Madison on Feb. 18, the Illini led at halftime against the Badgers but faltered out of the break before ultimately losing 64-58.

That loss jump-started Illinois’ swoon to finish the regular season. The first of five losses in the final six games.

But the Illini haven’t lost their confidence.

“We feel like we can do it again,” Dosunmu said about stringing wins together again. “The table is set for us to compete. We have to take it each game at a time and we have to be locked in mentally and physically. We can do it. I believe so.

“Some teams, they get down, but what’s the purpose of getting down when we know we’ve got to go and battle (tonight) and we have to win? We have to do some impressive things. You really have to stay level-headed. Never get too satisfied and never get too cocky.”

That potential tournament run goes through Northwestern first. The benefit of facing the Wildcats a third time this season — and just 10 days — after the last meeting means there will be no surprises.

“It’s games like this, really the scouting probably doesn’t matter because everyone knows what each other is doing,” Dosunmu said. “I can name their plays off the top of my head. That really isn’t going to make a difference. It’s about playing hard, executing, diving on loose balls (and) who’s tougher.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood has stressed the importance of rebounding and getting to the free throw line to his team leading into round three with Northwestern (and for any subsequent postseason game). Two keys in particular to the Wildcats, though, stand out to Underwood.

“When you start looking at the numbers, they really haven’t turned the ball over for a team that’s not playing with a true point,” he said. “(Northwestern coach Chris Collins) has done an unbelievable job of managing that situation. We can’t give them threes. They got some great looks in the second half of (the March 3) game. We’ve got to stay aggressive.”

Underwood expects tonight’s game to be even more of a grind than the previous two. Each team won on its home court. The season series will be decided on neutral ground in Chicago.

“You become familiar with teams,” Underwood said. “You understand personnel. There’s none of the ‘I don’t know’ factor for players and coaches. Those become grind-it-out games. Then it becomes about running really good offense, playing extremely hard and who gets the 50-50 balls. That’s what postseason basketball comes down to.”

The familiarity doesn’t run one way. Northwestern knows the challenge it’s facing, too. 

“(The Illini) have a tremendous amount of good, young talent that has proven themselves over the course of the conference of being capable of beating anybody,” Collins said. “We know we’ll have our hands full.”