CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu is looking to get his hands on some chicken alfredo when the Illinois men's basketball team arrives in Italy on Monday morning. The sophomore wants to see how it stacks up against the American version.
Dosunmu wants to see Milan on Monday — the first stop of a 10-day Italy trip that includes four basketball games. The team leaves Chicago on Monday morning and will return on Aug. 14 after playing basketball and touring the country. Dosunmu's interest in Milan stems from recently viewing "Spider-Man: Far From Home" where Milan is featured.
“I just want to go where Spider-Man was at and take a picture or something," Dosunmu said with a smile on Saturday.
Then Dosunmu and the Illini want to win each of their four games. They're excited for the tours of the counties and the experience, but Dosunmu was quick to point out that the trip will be much more enjoyable if they experience everything while also taking care of business on the basketball court. The sophomore guard said the word "win" seven times in 5 minutes, 25 seconds. It matters.
It's the first time the Illini will play another team since a season-ending loss to Iowa in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament in March at the United Center in Chicago.
“The main point is to win, no matter who we’re playing against," Dosunmu said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s a scrimmage or not, we’re building that foundation and that bond with each other that we want to win every game we play."
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood will let his assistant coaches do the coaching in the four games on the trip, while Underwood takes a step back for observation. Illinois will play four games: CUS Insubria (noon CT on Tuesday), Gazzada All-Stars (1 p.m. CT on Wednesday), Livorno All-Stars (1 p.m. CT on Friday) and the Netherlands National B Team (noon CT on Aug. 10). Underwood said the schedule equates to one lower level team, two low Division I teams and the National B team.
Sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili is eager to see how his team responds to unfamiliar opponents.
“It will be a challenge about how we handle the challenge, playing against pro players," Bezhanishvili said "They play a totally different game than we do, so how we as a young team handle that. Do we panic? Do we handle that right? "
Underwood, like his team, wants to win, but he also wants to tinker with lineups and schemes. He'll tweak the starting lineups and use different combinations throughout the game while also throwing in some zone defense.
“It’s a great experiment for us, I’m curious," Underwood said. "How do we look playing big? How do we look playing zone? What strides have some of these young guys made? It’s the big experiment, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out."
As important as winning, Underwood wants to have fun and wants to see his team bond during the 10-day trip. Back-to-back losing seasons that have been combined with both growing pains and stretches of success aren't always fun. Learning a new system and experiencing the challenges of learning that system can be taxing.
“I want us to have fun, and I saw that in every sense of the term. Being very honest, the last two years, it hasn’t been a lot of fun and we have to find a balance," Underwood said.
Underwood called it the perfect time to take the trip. Illinois has an experienced team that knows the system. Everyone returns from last season's team except for Aaron Jordan and Adonis De La Rosa, who used all of their eligibility; and Anthony Higgs and Samba Kane, who both entered the transfer portal. Illinois is incorporating freshmen Kofi Cockburn and Benjaman Bosmans-Verdonk, though Bosmans-Verdonk won't play in Italy because of a leg injury and has a doctor's appointment when the team returns. Bernard Kouma, the freshman from New York, has yet to join the team and Underwood said the team has no update as they await word from the eligibility center.
In other words, this team has hit the ground running and is further along than this time a year ago.
“You can’t even compare it. Last year practice was like,” Bezhanishvili slowed down the pace of his voice, “do it slow, let’s cut here and do it over again.
"Right now everyone knows what we do and we’re working in a high pace and we do it in a competitive way. Last year was like a dummy and it was five against zero. Now we can compete against each other, we know what we do and it’s totally different."
The next step is winning, and it's at the forefront of their minds.