After a dramatic victory at Michigan last weekend, Illinois coach Brad Underwood was asked about the fact that his team had taken sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
“I don’t even think like that,” he said. “I’m thinking about enjoying this one for a minute and figuring out who’s next on our schedule. We’ve got 11 more to go. We’re not even halfway through yet.”
Ayo Dosunmu, the player who made the winning shot in the final seconds, was more succinct.
“We want more,” he said. “Great win, but now we’re just going to get ready for Minnesota.”
The Illini can downplay it for now, but if the standings look this way for a couple more weeks, it may be hard to dismiss them in the race for the Big Ten title. That the Illini are contending at this point says a lot about how strange this Big Ten season has been — and how much the program has progressed in Underwood’s three seasons.
Illinois is No. 19 in the latest AP Top 25, its highest ranking since 2013. The Illini are one of six Big Ten teams ranked between 14th and 25th, and three members of that group — Illinois, Penn State and Rutgers — are shaking up the conference a bit after being largely irrelevant for varying periods.
It’s the Illini (15-5, 7-2) who are highest in the standings from that trio. Illinois was briefly alone in first place after the win over Michigan. Now Michigan State leads the Illini by a half-game. Illinois takes the court Thursday night against Minnesota.
Underwood spent three seasons as Stephen F. Austin’s coach and one season at Oklahoma State before coming to Illinois. The Illini went 26-39 during his first two seasons at the helm, but Illinois is riding high right now, while looking like a much different team.
Last season, the Illini defense was an impressive 24th in the nation in turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com. But they also racked up fouls and struggled on the defensive boards. This season, those numbers are essentially reversed. Illinois doesn’t seem to rely on forcing turnovers, but keeps opponents off the free throw line and rebounds well.
Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot freshman, averages 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Dosunmu, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, averages a team-high 16.2 points. Illinois is shooting just 31% from 3-point range as a team, and its top three scorers have combined to make only 28 shots from beyond the arc this season. But they are winning just the same.
With the game tied Saturday at Michigan, Dosunmu was guarded by Zavier Simpson, the Wolverines’ gritty point guard and defensive stalwart. Dosunmu dribbled to the free throw line and, with Simpson slapping at the ball in vain, sank a jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining to gave the Illini a 64-62 victory.
“The one thing I try to get into is not dancing with the ball, not trying to go for the home runs,” Dosunmu said. “Really get into my spots.”
That was the sixth straight win for Illinois. It’s the longest active winning streak in the league. The Illini will reach the midway point of the conference season with the game against Minnesota, then they face a five-game stretch against Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Rutgers and Penn State — the other five Big Ten teams that are currently in the Top 25.
That part of the schedule will provide some obvious tests, and this is still an Illinois team with some flaws, but so far the Illini have made their presence felt in the Big Ten with their tenacity.
“We keep going. We don’t stop,” Dosunmu said. “We keep playing until the buzzer says zero-zero.”
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