Asmussen | With Ayo back for more, hype builds around Illini

Asmussen | With Ayo back for more, hype builds around Illini

Illinois fans looking for even more positive news after Kofi Cockburn signed with the Illini on Tuesday night should check out Sunday's Lansing State Journal.

Columnist Graham Couch offered his Big Ten hierarchy for the 2019-20 season. The No. 1 team was an easy choice: Michigan State. With star guard Cassius Winston returning, the Spartans will be among the favorites to win the national title.

For his No. 2, Couch chose a less obvious team. One that lost 21 games this past season for the first time in school history.

He picked Illinois second. And ranked it among eight Big Ten teams he thinks will make the NCAA tournament field.

Why, you ask?

Here's what Couch wrote:

"Illinois went from a doormat to a pesky and emerging program during this past season. With (Ayo) Dosunmu announcing his return after a stellar freshman season, the Illini have their top three guys back — Dosunmu, along with gifted sophomore big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili and junior guard Trent Frazier — paired with incoming 6-10, 290-pound four-star recruit Kofi Cockburn. The old adage in college hoops is that you need three guys rolling to win anything. The Illini legitimately have the parts. And given how much trouble their unorthodox defensive style has given MSU and Winston, these guys could be contenders."

Remember, the one time Couch covered an Illinois game during the season, Brad Underwood's guys whipped Michigan State at State Farm Center.

The crowd was loud. The Illini played their best game of the season. It clearly left an impression.

Count me in, sort of

I'll buy it. With some "ifs."

If Cockburn is as good as advertised. The big guy has a chance to do major damage in the Big Ten.

The guards need to throw the ball inside. A lot. Keep Cockburn and friends busy, which will create easy outside opportunities.

If dynamic Dosunmu makes progress. He doesn't need to score 20 points a game. Just bump his numbers up a bit. Shoot a little better. Pass a little better. Cut the turnovers. Play like a lottery pick. No pressure.

If everybody else returns. The rest of the freshmen are ready to make jumps. Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones got a taste of college basketball. More will be expected from them.

If the nonconference schedule isn't overloaded.

So far, we know that Illinois will play Missouri in St. Louis, at Arizona, at Grand Canyon and in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Because Illinois played at Notre Dame as part of the most recent Challenge, the game figures to be back in Champaign.

The rest of the nonconference schedule must be filled with, well if not creampuffs, then jelly doughnuts. Play Duke or Kansas another time. Not going to name names, but you will likely see a string of bottom 100 teams in C-U.

Do the math

To get to No. 2 in the Big Ten, Illinois needs to flip its 2018-19 record. At least. That means 21-12.

Here comes the tricky part: Illinois is playing a nasty conference schedule.

The Big Ten just announced the opponents for every school. The Illini have two games against Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Purdue, Maryland, Rutgers and Northwestern. Yikes.

Two of the teams at the bottom of Couch's rankings, Indiana and Nebraska, are on the Illinois schedule only once.

Michigan State and Purdue were at the top of the Big Ten this season with 16-4 records.

To get close to 16-4, Illinois must sweep its home games. And steal five or six on the road. Not impossible.

In Brad Underwood's second season, Illinois went 5-5 in conference home games. To be fair, one of the loss was against Ohio State at the United Center.

Wisely, Illinois will not move a Big Ten game to Chicago this season.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at