CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu came back to Illinois for the 2019-20 men’s basketball season with “unfinished business” left to accomplish.
Some individual successes transpired as a freshman, but mostly disappointing results happened from a team standpoint after just 12 wins and a program-record 21 losses.
But how exactly did Dosunmu define the “unfinished business” that brought him back to Champaign? It all dates back to a conversation at Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s house during his recruitment when Dosunmu was a standout at Morgan Park.
Part of the Illini coaching staff’s recruiting pitch to the Chicago native was how they could help him achieve his basketball goals.
Dosunmu countered with a pitch of his own to Underwood and assistant coaches Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman and Jamall Walker.
Dosunmu told the Illinois coaches he was going to help the program compete at the top of the Big Ten.
He was going to help the Illini become one of top programs in the country.
He was going to help Illinois win enough that other top recruits would follow in his footsteps.
A pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season aside, Dosunmu went 3 for 3.
Illinois finished this past season nominally in fourth place in the Big Ten, but just a single game behind the three-way tie of Michigan State, Maryland and Wisconsin at the top. The Illini also ended the shortened season as the No. 21 team in the country — ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Recruiting wise, the baton was passed first to big man Kofi Cockburn and now to the backcourt duo of Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo.
“Pretty much what I meant by ‘unfinished business,’ I meant I was going to help accomplish everything that I said,” Dosunmu said.
The abrupt end to the 2019-20 season, with the Illinois team on the court at Hinke Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for their final practice while the Big Ten tournament was being canceled on March 12 created the question of if Dosunmu still had more unfinished business to handle. Same with the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, with the Illini poised to get a tournament bid for the first time since 2013.
So was Dosunmu’s business finished?
“The way I look at it, we were in the position to finish business,” he said. “We were in the position to go dancing and go as far as we wanted to go. One could look at it and say, ‘Yeah, you have more unfinished business.’ But I could say if we did go to the national championship and lose, did I finish business?
“It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to go dancing, but at the position we did, I feel like I accomplished all of my goals, and the team accomplished our goal. We didn’t get to finish that goal because of the pandemic, but everything that I said I was going to do before I came to Illinois, God blessed me to accomplish that, so I’m thankful for that.”
Not that the canceled NCAA tournament didn’t create a what-if situation for Illinois. Dosunmu was pretty candid with his opinion on how he thought the Illini could have fared given the opportunity.
“This year we accomplished a lot, starting from the Arizona game where we had no chemistry really,” Dosunmu said. Illinois lost 90-69 in Tucson, Ariz., on Nov. 10 in its first crack at a high-level team during the season.
“We were out there basically playing rec ball to the last game against Iowa where we were at full strength, together and fighting,” Dosunmu continued the comparison. “I just feel like it was a bummer that we didn’t get to meet our full expectations because of the coronavirus and pandemic that we’re in, but we were primed to go far. We were primed to, I would say, reach the Elite Eight or Final Four. We were that good as a team.”
The Dike Eddleman Award that Dosunmu claimed Wednesday, given to the top male and female athletes each school year at Illinois, validated his rise from breakout freshman to All-Big Ten sophomore. The Illini’s team success that went hand in hand with Dosunmu’s personal gains reinforced that concept.
“The hard work I put in to win freshman of the year, I had to double that hard work to win male athlete of the year,” he said. “This award, only one person can win it, but I give credit to my teammates, my family and coaching staff because without them, this award wouldn’t be possible to win. They helped me on and off the court. Without those people helping me and guiding me, it never would have gone how it went.
“We were primed to go far in the NCAA tournament. That’s all I really care about. The awards are great, but just to know I went from 12 wins to 21 wins, second in the Big Ten conference.
“I’ll go down as a winner, and everyone else who was on this team will go down as winners. That’s what I look back at it when I look at my first two years. I look at the improvement I made, not just me, but collectively as a unit changing the culture in the background and helping the program. Help the Illinois program turn into one of the best programs in the country.”