CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood spent some time the past few months preparing for a number of different roster scenarios for the 2020-21 Illinois men’s basketball season. The Illini coach had to be prepared for any eventuality with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn both figuring out their NBA draft chances.
Those notes sit on Underwood’s desk at Ubben Basketball Complex.
Ideas for what Illinois would do if Cockburn returned, but not Dosunmu. Or if neither made their way back to Champaign.
Underwood, of course, can scrap all those “What if?” type plans. The Illini are going to run it back in 2020-21 instead, with both Dosunmu and Cockburn withdrawing from the draft this past weekend to play at least one more season at Illinois.
“There were so many unknowns,” Underwood said Monday. “Having both of them back is something we’ll have to change and look at. We’ve got time for that, and we’re excited about that. I haven’t done any basketball stuff here in the last month in terms of trying to figure all of that out. Let’s get to this point, and now we can move forward with what is known, and that is our roster.”
Underwood remained mostly hands off during the last three-plus months when Cockburn and then Dosunmu declared for the draft. It was by design and the approach Underwood said he’s always taken. The decision of whether to return to Illinois was for the players to make.
“For them, it’s about gathering information,” Underwood said. “It’s putting your people in the know. In Ayo’s case, it was his family, and very similar with Kofi. I don’t want to step on their toes. We’re getting a lot of the same feedback. Yet, both of those young men did ask, and I gave them my feedback.
“I want them to know I’m here 100 percent to support them in whatever choice they make. Unfortunately, this past season if Ayo had done what I thought he would do in the NCAA tournament and Big Ten tournament, we don’t know if this scenario would have happened or not, and I’d be the first one to tell him he needs to go. It’s about them gathering information and making a decision based on them. I always wanted to step in when I was asked and when the time was coming up before their decision. Up until that point, there wasn’t anything for me to really hinder their thought process with.”
Dosunmu appreciated Underwood’s approach. That the entire Illinois coaching staff treated the past few months the same way was also important to the Illini guard.
“I give a lot of props to Coach Underwood and the coaching staff,” Dosunmu said. “They gave me ultimate space to make my decision that was the best for me and my family. No pressure. They rarely talked to me about it. They didn’t persuade me either way. We knew it was a mutual respect thing.”
The respect went both ways. When it was time to finalize a decision, Dosunmu and his family discussed it with Underwood. Up until that point, Underwood firmly believed his leading scorer was going to take the next step in his basketball career away from Illinois.
“Ayo’s commitment to do something is the reason he can say he wants to win a national championship because he’s fully committed to that,” Underwood said. “When Ayo puts his mind to something, he’s going to be fully committed to that. That’s why I left him alone during the process. I knew he was conducting a lot of interviews and that he was working out multiple times a day.”
Having to ponder a potential season without two key players lost early to the draft created a summer of unknowns for Underwood and Illinois. Easy? No. Exactly where Underwood wants his program? Yes.
“We said many times when we came to Illinois that we were going to recruit pros,” Underwood said. “Both those young men are going to play in that league. Both of them are going to have opportunities. It’s about the time has to be right to go do that.”
Dosunmu and Cockburn decided that time isn’t now. Illinois benefits. Their return along with the likes of Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in addition to now-eligible transfers Austin Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison and an incoming freshman class ranked in the top 15 nationally has the Illini set up for a potentially special season.
“When you take over a job you dream of getting it to this point where you have guys in Ayo’s stature who are NBA guys, but they come back,” Underwood said. “They get to play at their peak against their peers. … It kind of reminds me of an old school team, and I’m excited for our fans. Deep down you know this is what you were looking at when you took the job. This is where you knew you could be, and I’m excited about that.”