CHAMPAIGN — Dain Dainja turned his sights on Illinois as soon as he decided he was going to enter the transfer portal and leave the Baylor men’s basketball program.
Dainja already had a relationship established with both Illinois coach Brad Underwood and first-year assistant coach Tim Anderson. The Illini recruited Dainja out of Park Center (Minn.), and Anderson worked with the Chicago native individually six to seven years ago.
So that made Dainja’s first visit after entering the portal to Champaign a no-brainer.
The 6-foot-9, 270-pound center had a front-row seat for Friday night’s game against UT Rio Grande Valley at State Farm Center and must have liked what he saw enough — particularly how the Illini used Kofi Cockburn — to commit to Underwood and Co. on Saturday night.
“I feel like Illinois fits my game a lot,” Diana said. “That’s one thing I didn’t really pay attention to back in high school. It was just like, ‘Oh, I’m getting offered by Illinois. It’s cool.’ Actually watching them — Kofi’s role, (Coleman Hawkins’) role — that’s kind of how I play. With Coleman, I really like that because he can put the ball on the floor. Just talking with Coach Underwood, he likes versatile bigs, so I feel like I would fit great.”
Illinois will be able to add Dainja to the roster starting in the second semester after Underwood specifically held one scholarship open for this exact reason.
Dainja will ultimately help shore up an Illini frontcourt that is likely to lose Cockburn following the 2021-22 season.
Dainja was a consensus four-star recruit in the Class of 2020 and was ranked as high as No. 52 nationally by ESPN. He redshirted the 2020-21 season at Baylor after an injury necessitated surgery ahead of that season. Dainja played just nine minutes in the Bears’ first three games of the season and totaled six points, three rebounds and one block playing behind both Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba.
“The process is a little different,” Dainja said about being recruited again once he hit the portal. “Baylor was cool — I learned a lot from Baylor — but it just didn’t work out. I’m excited.”
The Illinois coaching staff stressed the developmental aspect of its program in re-recruiting Dainja. That the Illini can point to how Ayo Dosunmu turned into a consensus First Team All-American in three seasons and how Cockburn could well do the same after earning consensus Second Team All-American honors last season was part of the pitch.
So was Anderson’s presence on staff. That pre-existing relationship played a key role.
“When I was 13-14 years old I used to train in Chicago,” Dainja said. “I went to the Tony Allen Camp, and after that I started working with Tim with my older brother. Seeing him on the Illinois staff is real cool. We’ve got that connection. I know how hard those workouts were with me and Tim, and I know I can get better working with somebody like him. He’s trained lots of professionals — even one of my favorites, Anthony Davis. Just that right there is cool.”