CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn each made waves in the summer when they announced they were withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning to the Illinois men's basketball team.
Dosunmu announced first and less than 24 hours later Cockburn made the same announcement. It immediately raised expectations to the stratosphere in Champaign.
The Illini, in head coach Brad Underwood's fourth season in charge, opened the year ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll. This is the first time Illinois has been in the Top 10 since 2012 and the first time the Illini have been in the preseason Top 10 since 2004. In fact, this is the first time since 2010 the Illini have even been ranked in the AP Preseason poll since. The only Big Ten teams ranked ahead of Illinois are Wisconsin (No. 7) and Iowa (No. 5). Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 overall.
Also on Monday, both Dosunmu and Cockburn were named Preseason All-Big Ten by the media. Illinois was one of two programs in the conference with two players apiece on the 10-player panel. Iowa was the other.
Dosunmu was an unanimous selection along with Iowa's Luka Garza, who was selected as the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year.
Dosunmu and Cockburn aren't the only reasons Illinois has the highest expectations since the 2005 Final Four team. Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Da'Monte Williams each return. Transfers Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson are eligible after sitting out per NCAA transfer rules and once again, Underwood and Co. have a talented recruiting class. Four-star guards, who were each ranked in the top-50 nationally, Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo are on the team along with three-star forward Coleman Hawkins.
In other words: There's depth and talent on the team. The program is getting to where Underwood wants it to be, but he's been steadfast in public about avoiding the national rankings.
"Now you’ve got to go from the hunted to the hunter and understand the bullseye is on your back and you’ve got to handle that," Underwood said last month. "The first part of that starts with distractions away from the court and listening to all the stuff that you guys talk about. That’s for everybody else. Our objectives is to never watch the rankings, never talk about the rankings — that’s for everybody else."
He is on the Bob Cousy Award Watch List for the second straight year, a first-team All-America pick by CBS Sports and ranked as the nation's No. 2 returning player by college basketball reporter Andy Katz.
Cockburn is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year after averaging 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman last season to go with 44 blocks. His presence in the middle allowed Underwood to-reshape his defense and have Dosunmu and other guards a big target for lob passes in the post.
He's on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award Watch List and the No. 10 returning player by Katz.
The season can begin on Nov. 25 and it's reported that Illinois will host a multi-team event at the State Farm Center on Nov. 25-27. The reported teams playing in that event are: Ohio, North Carolina A&T and Wright State. The schedule has not yet been released other than a Dec. 8 game against No. 9 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Illinois has also been reported to playing No. 2 Baylor on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis, though that has not been confirmed by the program.
31 amazing Illini basketball history photos
Lou Henson in 1993
Easy does it
Free for all
Hero of the hour
Illinois v. Iowa
Talk of the Big Ten
To the wire
Whiz Kids Big Ten champs in '42, '43
Wrong, Mr. Referee
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
It's been more than three weeks since the NCAA announced a start date of Nov. 25 for the men's and women's college basketball season and so far, as it pertains to the Big Ten, very little is known beyond that.
Nate Hobbs stood on a bench just outside the Champaign Police Department on Monday afternoon with hundreds of University of Illinois students, student-athletes, coaches and administrators filling up the streets with all their eyes and cameras on him.
Brad Underwood knows expectations come along with returning two of the league's top players, which means returning four of five starters, bringing in a stellar recruiting class and adding a pair of sit-out transfers that Underwood has spoken highly of for a year.
No more than a minute or two had passed on Wednesday as players began to funnel off the floor and two their respective locker rooms did Kofi Cockburn ditch his Illinois basketball jersey and get back to work.