CHAMPAIGN — There was no question which Illinois player was going to have the ball in his hands with the Illini trailing by one point with just more than 7 seconds to play Friday afternoon at State Farm Center.
It was Ayo Dosunmu’s game to win — or lose. The Illinois preseason All-American took care of business like he did so often last season. Dosunmu sped the length the court in less than five seconds, was fouled and knocked down both free throws to give Illinois the lead.
A lead Trent Frazier helped the Illini secure after picking off an Ohio inbounds pass and hitting a free throw of his own after getting fouled (and also missing the second on purpose).
The end result? A 77-75 victory for No. 8 Illinois against Ohio. A result certainly not guaranteed with the Bobcats’ Jason Preston going off for 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds and pick-and-rolling the Illini to death.
But Dosunmu came through in the clutch. Again. The Illinois junior guard finished with 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds and secured a 3-0 start for the Illini.
A 3-0 start that will be on the line next week against No. 2 Baylor.
Follow along all afternoon with our beat writer from State Farm Center as Illinois tries to start its season 3-0:
A few things I’m looking for from Illinois with the level of competition increasing today against Ohio. Basically, can the Illini still do these things when they aren’t playing North Carolina A&T or Chicago State?
— Can Ayo Dosunmu still be in total control of his game and, therefore, the Illini’s chances?
— Will Andre Curbelo be able to come out on the positive side of the ledger when it comes to balancing his going 100 mph turnovers and going 100 mph everything else?
— Can Adam Miller still be a lights out shooter if, and this isn’t a guarantee, Ohio actually decides to guard him and he doesn’t get wide open look after wide open look?
— Will Kofi Cockburn notch another points-rebounds double-double? (Feel pretty good about this one).
— Can Jacob Grandison keep being the bench glue guy extraordinaire he’s been so far?
— Will Brad Underwood go 14 deep with his rotation? (Not a no, but leaning that way).
The more games that are played, the more numbers (advanced or not) there are to crunch. Illinois has already climbed one spot in the KenPom ratings, for example. But I’m still all in on Bart Torvik’s work at this point of the season since teams that haven’t played — and there are a good number of them — can be weeded out.
Here’s where Illinois is dominating teams so far, with the caveat that those teams are North Carolina A&T and Chicago State. The Illini lead the nation in both offensive rebounding percentage and in limiting their opponents in the same metric.
It’s one thing to see Illinois has outrebounded its first two opponents by a combined 117-28. It’s another to know that the Illini are rebounding 62.1 percent of their own misses and allowing their opponents to pull down just 6.9 percent of their misses.
Kind of a big deal. But we’ll see how that translates to today’s game against Ohio.
Fewer Big Ten teams played yesterday than were on the schedule for the first day of the season. Just three, including Illinois, and the Illini were the only winners.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) November 27, 2020
But here’s a takeaway from losses by both Nebraska and Purdue:
— The Cornhuskers topped the century mark in beating McNeese State on Wednesday. They were less successful in a 69-66 loss to Nevada. Wolf Pack guard Grant Sherfield (fun fact, he was a one-time Illinois target) wasn’t overly efficient but was rather productive with 19 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Nebraska was neither efficient or all that productive give the ‘Huskers shot just 29 percent from the field and lost. Dalano Blanton is a guy to keep an eye on moving forward, though. He’s got great size as a BIG guard at 6-foot-9 and 204 pounds, and he put up 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists against Nevada.
— So Zach Edey might be the real deal for Purdue given he was able to match the level of production he showed Wednesday against Liberty (not a bad mid-major at all) on Thursday against Clemson (not a terrific high major to be honest). The Boilermakers lost to Clemson, but Edey still put up 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks off the bench.
The real question? How does Matt Painter always get these 7-4, 285-pound giants? Edey was ranked 429th (not a typo) in the 247Sports Composite for the Class of 2020. Now he’s Purdue’s best player?
Feast Week ends today for Illinois basketball, and, boy, have the Illini feasted to start the 2020-21 season. First there was the 62-point win against North Carolina A&T in the opener. Then Thursday’s 59-point drubbing of Chicago State.
Those back-to-back victories made Illinois the first AP Top 25 team to win its first two games by 55 points or more since the 1989-90 Oklahoma Sooners did the same thing. There’s only one other team on that list — the 1972-73 North Carolina State squad.
Only Ohio stands between Illinois and a perfect 3-0 MTE performance
Defense helps key another blowout victory
Cubelo next up for breakout performance by a freshman
That Oklahoma team went 27-5 that season. The Sooners were a No. 1 seed, but lost to UNC in the second round.
You might remember the 1972-73 N.C. State team a little better. The Wolfpack went 27-0, but sanctions from the recruitment of David Thompson meant they were ineligible for the postseason. Sanctions lifted the next season, N.C. State went 30-1 and won a national title.
What this Illinois team does after walloping its first two opponents remains to be seen. It’s unlikely another 50-point win is in the offing today against Ohio. The Bobcats are simply a better team than either North Carolina A&T or Chicago State.
It’s the type of nonconference challenge the Illini need. Ohio claimed the top spot among Illinois’ competition this week after Wright State had to pull out because of COVID-19 issues. Which is a bummer. Illini-Raiders was going to be the matchup of the week.
Now it’s Illini-Bobcats, and it should at least be more competitive basketball than the last two days. Ohio went 17-15 last season and finished fifth in its division in the MAC. This year? The Bobcats were picked to finish second overall in the MAC behind Bowling Green and got point guard Jason Preston on the preseason All-MAC First Team.
Preston’s legit. He’s the best player the Illini will face this week. The 6-foot-4, 187-pound guard obviously has decent size, he’s long and Illinois coach Brad Underwood called him deceivingly athletic.
There’s also this. Preston averaged 16.8 points, 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds last season as a veritable triple-double threat at any moment. Know who else averaged at least 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds last year in all of Division I college hoops? Nobody.