CHAMPAIGN — The power of a simple, two-word phrase.
Friday night it was “Year three.” On Saturday afternoon it was “I’m back.”
Two decisions that changed the course of Illinois basketball for another season. Ayo Dosunmu or Kofi Cockburn pulling their name from the 2020 NBA draft would have been a boon for the Illini. Either one would have raised the team’s ceiling.
Both making the choice to opt out of the NBA draft and return to Illinois? Expectations now skyrocket ahead Brad Underwood’s fourth season as coach in Champaign.
The idea of Dosunmu and Cockburn returning together for another season was treated as a hypothetical — albeit a rather unlikely one — since both declared for the draft in April. The idea of that, though, had national analysts forecasting Illinois as one of the top teams in the county.
Saturday provided the proof in the pudding, as it were. Cockburn’s decision to return to Illinois for his sophomore season after Dosunmu decided to do the same for his junior year sent the Illini from not even under consideration in CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish’s Top 25 and 1 into the No. 7 spot. Stadium’s Jeff Goodman made a similar move, vaulting the Illini to No. 9 in his preseason top 50.
It’s been 16 years since an Illinois team entered a season with those types of expectations. The 2004-05 Illini checked in at No. 5 in the preseason AP Top 25. That team, of course, wound up playing for a national title.
And that’s exactly why Dosunmu is running it back one more time. Turns out he had a little more unfinished business to address. Dosunmu now has his sights set on a national championship — perhaps his last unchecked box from the abruptly cut short 2019-20 season.
You can’t downplay Cockburn’s decision to return. The mere presence of a 7-foot, 290-pound Cockburn, after all, prompted near wholesale changes at both ends from Underwood and the Illinois coaching staff. Changes that were, in no small part, responsible for the Illini turning 21 losses to 21 wins in a single season.
But Dosunmu leads the way. Has since he emerged from a back room at the Jordan Brand store in downtown Chicago on Oct. 19, 2017, wearing a white, Illinois-branded polo and announced his commitment before Underwood had even coached a game with the Illini.
Dosunmu bucked the trend of the state’s top players heading anywhere but Illinois with the program falling on hard times. Did it again after his own breakout freshman season when declaring he had unfinished business in Champaign and would withdraw from the 2019 NBA draft. Then once more Friday when he announced he wasn’t quite done in orange and blue.
The dynamic of the 2020-21 Illinois basketball season has now been flipped on its head. Not quite a month ago, the latest from Dosunmu was he had no intention of pulling his name from the draft, and Cockburn had left Champaign with workouts about to resume. Easy to see why Illini fans would be, well, uneasy about the coming season.
Just on the verge of getting Illinois basketball back to being Illinois basketball and … two steps back if Dosunmu and Cockburn had both chosen to get on with their professional careers. Instead, the Illini will bring back four starters from last year’s team that went 21-10, finished in the top four in a loaded Big Ten and would have been back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 if, you know, the NCAA tournament actually would have happened.
That’s where the elephant in the room makes its presence known. The 2020-21 college basketball season isn’t guaranteed. Now would be the time for Illinois basketball fans to let everyone they know that thinks the coronavirus is a hoax or thinks it isn’t worse than the seasonal flu or hasn’t been wearing a mask to pay attention.
This Illinois basketball team will also have its most talented roster in 16 years. Dosunmu and Cockburn, of course, lead the way.
More experience and leadership will come from veterans Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Adding a pair of top 50 guards to that core in Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo only raises Illinois’ ceiling. Then there’s the unknown — but anticipated — debuts of sit-out transfers Austin Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison and the idea of what a healthy Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk could supply. But that potentially transcendental Illinois basketball team (at least compared to those from the last decade-plus) will be for naught if there’s no season.
Dosunmu debuted a new hashtag — #LetsMakeHistory — Friday night after announcing he would again return.
This Illini team could.
Give them that opportunity. Help the 2020-21 college basketball season actually happen. Wear a damn mask.
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).