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Ayo Dosunmu is the star Illini basketball always needed

How Chicago native Ayo Dosunmu left a lasting legacy at Illinois.

Ayo Dosunmu put on an all black outfit when he woke up to go to school on October 19, 2017. He changed his Twitter avatar to a blank black box, and so did the rest of his large, supportive family that had been visible throughout the recruiting process. Dosunmu had whittled down his college choice to Illinois and Wake Forest, and he wasn’t about to give any clues before he revealed his decision at the Jordan Brand store in the heart of downtown Chicago.

Dosunmu was considered the top basketball player in the city and a borderline five-star prospect depending on which recruiting service you trusted. He was exactly the type of recruit that had broken the spirit of Illini fans so many times before.

Illinois basketball didn’t always feel like a punchline, but it had become one in the years following its 2005 Final Four run. Illinois captivated the country behind Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head, but it couldn’t turn an iconic team into future wins on the recruiting trail. It started to feel like making the Illini your second choice was a rite of passage for top local recruits who were deciding where they would play college basketball.

Eric Gordon verbally committed to Illinois only to end up at Indiana. Jon Scheyer became a legend for his scoring outbursts at suburban Glenbrook North playing for the brother of Illinois coach Bruce Weber, but he still picked Duke over heading to Champaign. Sherron Collins and Julian Wright picked Kansas. Jalen Brunson picked Villanova. Cliff Alexander, then the No. 2 overall prospect in America out of Chicago’s Curie High School, mistakenly picked up an Illinois hat for a moment before revealing that he’d spend his lone college season in Lawrence. The reaction video of Illinois fans watching Alexander’s mishap felt like the program’s defining moment since the Final Four run.

Illinois fans remembered Shaun Livingston wearing an Illini jersey to school at nearby Peoria the day before picking Duke. They had pegged Quentin Snider and Jeremiah Tilmon as saviors only to see each renege on their oral commitments and eventually go to Louisville and Missouri, respectively, instead. The thought of a highly-touted recruit listing the Illini as a finalist was enough to trigger feelings of dread and resignation for anyone who cared about the program. These stories only ended one way.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood reportedly didn’t know Dosunmu’s intentions when the lights went off in the Jordan Brand store and a short video played thanking everyone who helped the point guard get to this point. Kanye West’s “Homecoming” blared from the speakers as the lights came on and Dosunmu entered the room wearing a white Illini polo. Illinois basketball, for once, didn’t come in second.

Three and a half years later, Dosunmu has become the best guard in college basketball, and maybe even its best player. He would have led Illinois to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013 as a sophomore last season before Covid-19 stopped daily life as we know it. Now he has Illinois lined up for a No. 1 seed.

“I just felt that playing for my home state and investing in my home state meant more than it would at another school,” Dosunmu told SB Nation. “I thought I had a chance to do something special at Illinois.”

This is the impact Illinois basketball was always waiting for when it pinned its hopes and dreams on high schoolers who ultimately decided they’d rather play college basketball somewhere else. Dosunmu was the right player at the right time to finally make it happen.

Dosunmu started his high school career in Chicago playing at Westinghouse, a formerly proud program that had been relegated down to the inferior White division when he showed up as a freshman. The team appeared to be entering a rebuilding phase, but Dosunmu wouldn’t let that happen. He put up gaudy scoring numbers all season and led Westinghouse to a conference championship that put the school back to the Red division with the rest of the Public League powers.

Still, Dosunmu wanted to compete for state championships and knew he needed a bigger stage for that. He decided to transfer to Morgan Park, one of the city’s premier programs. The Mustangs were led by Nick Irvin, the boisterous and affable head coach whose family also runs the city’s top grassroots program on Nike’s EYBL circuit, the Mac Irvin Fire. Irvin had coached plenty of great players, but he quickly realized Dosunmu could be better than all of them.

“The first day of practice, I knew he had the chance to become one of the best players to ever come out of Chicago,” Irvin told SB Nation.

If Irvin saw his long-term potential, Dosunmu knew it wasn’t his team just yet. Morgan Park had a senior guard in Charlie Moore who was positioning himself as the top player in the city and a top 100 recruit nationally. Irvin pleaded with Dosunmu to take over more often offensively, but the sophomore was content to defend and distribute while Moore pushed for Mr. Basketball. Morgan Park was upset in the super-sectional round of the state playoffs, but Dosunmu’s reputation was starting to take off.

He debuted on the EYBL’s 17U level in the spring and started opening eyes. His first scholarship offer came from Illinois-Chicago and assistant coach Ron ‘Chin’ Coleman. Illinois and then-head coach John Groce offered shortly after. Before long, Dosunmu had gone from unranked to a top-40 recruit flirting with five-star status on some publications.

Suddenly, Dosunmu was crowned the next big thing in the city. With Moore off to play college ball at Cal, Morgan Park would be his team. Irvin says Dosunmu worked as hard as any player he’s ever been around heading into his junior year, often going from hours-long practices with Morgan Park straight into individual skill training with his father Quam. Irvin found a player who hated being coddled and wanted to be pushed to the limit by his coach.

“It’s either state championship or bust,” Irvin recalls telling Dosunmu. “It’s going to come down to you closing out games and closing out teams. I always told him people remember players that close games out like MJ and Kobe. His junior year, he won us a lot of games late.”

Now nearing 6’5 as a point guard, Dosunmu was becoming a takeover scorer who thrived going to the basket and was starting to make progress with an awkward-looking jump shot. He powered Morgan Park through the Public League gauntlet and into the state semifinals, where he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first five minutes of the game. Morgan Park would win a state championship without him.

Dosunmu went back to the EYBL circuit months later and certified his borderline five-star status. USC, Xavier, NC State, and Wake Forest were all-in. Illinois had hired a new head coach in Brad Underwood, and he hired a new assistant: Chin Coleman, the same coach who gave Dosunmu his first scholarship.

Dosunmu and his family didn’t want to let speculation over his college decision hang over his senior year. He got together with his inner circle — his parents Jamarra and Quam, his sisters Joselynn and Khadijat, his brother Kube — and made a decision that felt natural for him.

“Illinois is our state program,” Dosunmu’s father told SB Nation. “We want Illinois to be on top. We believed we had the right pieces and could turn it around.”

“We like challenges. We like building things. We’re a hard working family. Illinois was a perfect fit.”

Dosunmu played through another leg injury as a senior, but he wasn’t going to let it keep him off the floor. After leading Morgan Park back to the state title game, he scored a record 28 points in the final outing to bring the Mustangs back-to-back championships.

Iowa v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Dosunmu didn’t have much time to heal up after high school season — he was invited to try out for USA Basketball’s U18 team in the FIBA Americas Championship, made the team, and flew to Ontario for the competition. There, Dosunmu teamed with current NBA players Coby White, Cole Anthony, and Tyrese Maxey and finished sixth on the team in scoring as the Americans won the gold medal. It was another impressive accomplishment in his prep career, but his body never had much time to recover from nagging leg and ankle injuries.

Dosunmu was hailed as the Illini’s savior when he committed, but those around him sensed it wasn’t going to happen overnight. Illinois had lost two key players to transfer over the offseason in Mark Smith and Michael Finke, leaving a young team without much proven talent or depth in the front court.

Illinois was swept out of the 2018 Maui Invitational. It started 1-7 in Big Ten play and finished only above Nebraska and Northwestern in the conference. It had the second-worst defense in the Big Ten and an offense that ranked No. 83 in the country. This was a young team and a bad team by any measure, but there were flashes of the player Dosunmu would eventually become. He closed out a win against Michigan State with a pull-up three, and beat Ohio State with a catch-and-shoot triple from NBA range. He led the team in scoring, but his efficiency — 43.5 percent from the field, 69.5 percent from the foul line — left a lot to be desired.

Dosunmu was projected as a borderline first round pick throughout his freshman year. If some expected him to leave school for good, his father wasn’t one of them.

“He didn’t pass the eye test to me,” Quam Dosunmu said. “I knew he wasn’t ready for grown men at the time because his body hadn’t healed.”

Dosunmu made the surprising decision to announce his return to school without even testing the draft process. He was back for his sophomore season with a goal of going from top prospect to top player.

Illinois got a big boost going into the season with the commitment of Kofi Cockburn, a mammoth seven-foot, 290-pound center from Brooklyn by way of Jamaica. Cockburn provided a much needed infusion of talent as the No. 43 recruit in the RSCI while also filling Illinois’ biggest need. Finally, the Illini had a big man who could fortify the paint on defense and provide interior scoring.

The Illini lost close games to Maryland, Miami (FL), and Missouri to start the season, but things fully started to click in the heart of conference season. Illinois rattled off seven straight wins against Big Ten opponents during one stretch, and they closed the regular season as winners of five of six. Dosunmu was the catalyst and was fully growing into his reputation as one of the best closers in the sport.

He iced a win over Wisconsin with a step-back three. He finished off Northwestern with a deep pull-up. He used his size to bang home a 15-foot game-winner over Zavier Simpson and Michigan. He hit a bomb to beat Indiana and a mid-range shot to down Iowa. Dosunmu improved his scoring average to a team-best 16.6 points per game and was named All-Big Ten First Team. Illinois was ranked in the 30s in efficiency on both ends of the floor and set to get its first NCAA tournament bid since 2013.

Then the pandemic hit.

“We had a chance to win the Big Ten Tournament and I had a chance to improve my stock,” Donsumu said. “But Covid had other plans. I tried to accept it for what it was.”

Covid-19 changed life as we know it for everyone, but it felt particularly devastating for a 20-year-old on the precipice of accomplishing what he had worked so hard for. Again, Dosunmu had a decision to make: turn pro or return for his junior year. To hear his family tell it, he may have made a different choice if not for the pandemic.

“We’re a family of planners,” Quam said. “There was too many uncertainness that came with draft process, with the G League during Covid. We probably wouldn’t be doing an interview right now if not for the pandemic.”

Dosunmu himself also said it was a difficult question to answer:

“I pretty much took it one year at a time,” Dosunmu said. “Talking to my family, they really helped me make the best decision for myself and for my long-term future. My mom always told me you don’t have to save this family. We’re in a great financial situation. I think that allowed me to put in the work I needed.”

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The success Dosunmu has experienced as a junior is the direct result of a hard-charging offseason meant to transform his body and his skill set. He owes the former to Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. The work didn’t stop after hours of lifting. Fletcher also overhauled Dosunmu’s diet and took it upon himself to see that the point guard was eating enough even when he didn’t have the appetite for it.

“Baked chicken, macaroni, mashed potatoes, salad,” Dosunmu recalls. “He’d give me a big plate and say you gotta eat all of this. It came a point where he would sit down at the table with me and watch me eat and make sure I digested it right.”

From the time he entered the program until now, Dosunmu says he put on at least 25 pounds of muscle. The player he is today wouldn’t be possible without it.

When it came to fine-tuning his skill set, Dosunmu went back to the only trainer he’s had his entire life: his family. His father Quam and his brother Kube worked to remake a three-point shot that bottomed out as a sophomore. For as good as Dosunmu was last season, he knew only making 29 percent of his three-pointers wasn’t going to cut it.

The elder Dosunmus recorded every shot Ayo was taking in his training sessions and compared it to what they saw in games. When they found an attempt that looked good, they would go back to the floor and try to replicate the mechanics with a focus on his elbows and follow through. They held him to a high standard, not considering each drill complete until he made 80 percent of his shots.

“It took so many long nights in the gym,” Dosunmu told SB Nation. “Frustrating nights. Threw so many balls all over the gym to get to the point where I got to now.”

Dosunmu has been one of the very best players in the country from the start of the season. Along the way, he’s helped make the Illini one of the country’s very best teams.

Underwood has spread the floor around the two-man game of Dosunmu and Cockburn with electric results. Pick-and-rolls including passes make up half of Dosunmu’s possessions, and Illinois has scored in the 88th percentile in the country on those play types. Dosunmu has thrived driving the ball to the basket since his high school days, but now he knows how to read pick-and-roll coverages as a passer and has more confidence in his pull-up shooting.

Almost every area of Dosunmu’s game has leveled up as a junior. His 30 percent assist rate is a career-best, up from 21 percent. He ended the regular season making 40 percent of his three-pointers, a massive improvement from last season, even if it’s still on modest volume. He’s getting to the line more than ever — a 34 percent free throw rate, up from 25 percent each of his first two years — and he’s making the freebies when he gets there. The point guard who was a 69 percent free throw shooter as a freshman now makes 78 percent from the foul line. He’s pulled off the impressive feat of having his most efficient scoring season (57.1 percent true shooting) while posting his highest usage rate (30 percent) yet.

Illinois has a top-10 offense and top-10 defense, one of only three teams in America that can say that. Right now, Dosunmu is the only player in the country to average more than 20 points, five assists, and six rebounds while shooting better than 50 percent on two-pointers and 40 percent on three-pointers.

The late game heroics have, of course, been there again. He hit a catch-and-shoot three to bury Indiana, a pull-up to beat Nebraska in overtime, an NBA-range three to finish off Northwestern, and a driving layup to defeat Ohio State.

Dosunmu made that last shot while wearing a black mask after suffering a broken nose at the end of a close loss against Michigan State. He doesn’t love how the mask affects his vision, but it has a way of making him look even more intimidating.

The Illini are finally back in the NCAA tournament, and they aren’t just happy to be there. With a likely No. 1 seed next to their name, Dosunmu is thinking about the Final Four and the national championship. Anything less will ultimately be a disappointment.

When asked why he broke the trend of hometown stars spurning the Illini, Dosunmu looked forward instead of backward.

“Five to 10 years from now, the legacy I leave at my home school will mean more than anywhere else.”

That legacy — one of the great players in the history of Illini basketball — has already been cemented. The final chapter just might be the best part yet.

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