The University of Illinois Fighting Illini are back in the AP rankings top five for the first time since their 2004-05 season, and the team is looking like a legitimate title contender. This team, confounded by their dynamic sophomore and junior, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn respectively, has the team poised for a deep run in this March’s NCAA National Tournament. 

The team is coming off a 73-66 win against the Northwestern Wildcats on February 16th. Illini fans were able to watch big man, Kofi Cockburn, execute his 15th double-double of the season. The 7-foot, 285lb center is currently second in the nation in this statistical category. Additionally, the excellent off the bench play from Giorgi Bezhanishvili was a major factor in the team’s success. Giorgi put together a 10 point and 3 rebound performance, but possibly the most important factor in their win over the Wildcats, is the one thing Illini hopefuls have been watching all season.

The late game heroics from Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu proved most memorable. While this Big-Ten Player of the Year candidate had a relatively quiet night, his points came when they mattered most. The junior guard hit two clutch threes in the last 1:25 of the game to seal the team’s sixth straight win. It’s safe to say, the Illini are in contention for a national championship when #11 is on the court.

Even with Illinois enduring close bouts against their less than elite competition over the last two games, the Illini are looking to continue their head of steam directly into March Madness.


What’s the Difference This Year for the Illini team?

Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15)Illinois Men’s Basketball vs. Michigan in Champaign, Illinois.December 11, 2019Photo Credit: Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

Last season’s Illini basketball team played their best ball in years but they didn’t have the opportunity to show their game in the month of march. With the coronavirus getting under way, the NCAA National Tournament was canceled. Talented players across the country were left unable to demonstrate their talents on one of the biggest stages in college sports.

This year the Fighting Illini are revamped and energized for March with something to prove.

Role Players

The Illinois crew features amazing talent from the starting rotation to the bench, but this team has demonstrated that being competitive is only possible when everyone knows their place. Players such as aforementioned, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and defensive stud, Damonte Williams are two high-caliber guys that get the job done. Impressively, they did so while remaining under the radar for most opponents. These two standouts for Illini fans have spent time on and off the starting squad since the 2018-19 season. While these players’ stats have been stymied due to inconsistent minutes this season, their efficiency and usefulness have been undeniable.

Improving Stars

Young stars, Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu have stepped up each year they’ve been on the court. Even with these studs balling out last season, they have looked like different players this year. Cockburn has turned himself into one of the most efficient players in the league, shooting 67-percent from the field (third in the NCAA). Meanwhile, Ayo Dosunmu has skyrocketed himself into the conversation of Big Ten Player of the Year and potentially up for national honors as well. The guard has been able to increase his marks in points, assists, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, and just about every statistical category possible. These major improvements have allowed this duo to be the perfect tandem in leading the Illini team.

Freshman Guards

Let’s not forget the two Freshman guards who have made their presence felt with less than a season completed. Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo have been an immense addition to the Illinois squad, especially after losing talent before the start of the season. Miller has demonstrated his talents as a scoring threat for the Fighting Illini, while Curbelo has been the team’s best pure passer. The boost these two players have provided this season was non-existent in the 2019-20 team.

Defense

The difference a strong defensive group can make for a basketball team is unprecedented. The Illini’s improvement on that side of the ball this season has proven crucially important to their team’s growth. Last year’s squad lacked legitimate rim protection and defensive prowess, but this issue was clearly addressed during the off-season. The Fighting Illini finished more than a few defensive categories outside of the top 100 last season. Impressively, they now rank higher in rebounds per game and opponent field goal percentage this year. These statistical categories are the basis by which the Fighting Illini have gained a competitive advantage over their opponents.


How Can They Make a Deep Run?

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

First and foremost, the Fighting Illini need effective play off the bench. Bench play is one of the most critical aspects in a championship caliber team. With March Madness being a single elimination tournament, keeping players energized and healthy will be essential to finish games. This sparkplug effort will need to stem from Andre Curbelo and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

The other piece to the team’s continued success is a focus on their veteran play. Perhaps one of the most overlooked players on this team, Trent Frazier, has been the smooth-handled point guard leading this Illini team since the 2017-18 season. His time at Illinois has included facilitation and leadership, assisting each young player to join the Illinois roster over the past three seasons. The senior point guard has the maturity and the experience to lead this team deep into the NCAA tournament. He may be the difference in the team winning some tight games. His efficient play combined with Ayo Dosunmu makes way for an efficient backcourt pairing. Dosunmu, who is perhaps college basketball’s best clutch performer, is set to be the strength of this squad moving forward. The impressive offensive abilities of these two players could be an unstoppable force come tournament play.

Look out for the Fighting Illini at the end of March, they might be turning some heads.

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Alex Kaptur Guzman

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