PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The way Illinois men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood described Ayo Dosunmu following Saturday’s game at Rutgers was telling.
It pointed to exactly what the Illini were missing against the Scarlet Knights.
Underwood called Dosunmu Illinois’ “alpha.” The sophomore guard is the team’s leading scorer. Tops on the squad in assists, too. Mostly, though, Dosunmu is a leader.
For everything he brings from a purely basketball perspective, his leadership this season as “the guy” has been just as important.
Underwood thought his team handled playing without Dosunmu, who missed his first game of the season after suffering a left leg injury during Tuesday night’s home loss against Michigan State, fairly well.
The moments the Illini needed him in the second half, though, were easily identifiable.
A 6 1 / 2-minute scoring drought turned a one-point game into a double-digit Illinois deficit. A similar stretch without a made field goal to end the game made a comeback nearly impossible.
The result? A 72-57 Rutgers win in front of another sellout crowd of 8,000 at the RAC.
“You can’t shoot 26 percent on the road and win,” Underwood said. The No. 22 Illini (16-9, 8-6 Big Ten) shot 26.9 percent in the second half and just 31.1 percent for the game against the Scarlet Knights (18-8, 9-6).
“Give Rutgers’ defense a lot of that credit,” Underwood continued. “They deserve that. We were kind of throwing some guys out there who played minutes that they haven’t been playing a little bit, and that led to some defensive mistakes.”
The last time Underwood tinkered with his lineup and rotation was early December, when he moved Andres Feliz from the starting lineup and back into the role off the bench the senior guard thrived in a year ago. Illinois settled into that rotation. Roles were defined, and that stability made a difference. The Illini’s seven-game win streak in January that thrust them back into the national spotlight for the first time in several years doesn’t happen without it.
“I’ve talked a lot about having unbelievable role identification,” Underwood said. “Now those roles change. That means more minutes and extended minutes. Mistakes can happen in those time frames because of fatigue or something else, and that was very evident that happened (Saturday).”
Dosunmu’s absence pushed Feliz back into the starting lineup, and he played more minutes (31) than he had since the first three games of the season. Alan Griffin played more in a single game (34) than he has in his career. Tevian Jones nearly so at 19-plus minutes.
“I have a tough group of guys around me, and they play their butts off every day and practice hard every day,” Kofi Cockburn said. The Illinois freshman center finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, one of three Illini in double figures alongside Griffin (14) and Feliz (10).
“When Ayo doesn’t play, guys just have to chip in a little bit extra,” Cockburn said. “Guys have to rebound a little bit more. Guys have to make sure they elevate each other and make the extra pass. Ayo is a great piece for us, but I think we still have enough tools around us to be successful. It’s all about connecting. When one guy is down or not performing, the other guys pick him up. It’s about elevating each other each and every day.”
Rutgers was coming off a 72-66 loss at Ohio State on Wednesday night. Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell said that only gave his team about a day-and-a-half to prepare for the Illini, and they didn’t alter things much concerning Dosunmu’s then uncertain availability.
Not having to contend with Dosunmu in the game, though? That does create a noticeable difference given the 6-foot-5 guard is averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists while serving as Illinois’ go-to player and closer. On Saturday, all he could serve as a spectator, offering encouragement on the bench while dressed in navy blue Illini sweatpants and a navy blue hooded Illini sweatshirt.
“There’s no doubt it’s different,” Underwood said. “When he’s one of the best players in the country, you game plan for him and around him. Now you’re asking somebody else to step into that role. Secondary and third and fourth options become primary options.”
Pikiell was pleased with the way his team handled the scouting report and short prep for Illinois.
“I just thought we were locked in to the whole game,” he said. “Cockburn is a problem in the lane. Giorgi (Bezhanishvili) has scored a zillion points against us in the past. Feliz is one of the best guards in the league. Trent (Frazier) is a scoring point guard. I liked the way the guys were locked in to the details.”