CHAMPAIGN — A month ago, in the heart of a four-game winning streak and during a stretch of five wins in six games, Illinois was well on track to avoid the very scenario it finds itself in heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
Chances existed for Illinois to avoid the dreaded first-round tournament game and to have an extra day of preparation and scouting before beginning what will be a challenging tournament.
Instead, the Illini (11-20) lost five of six to close out the regular season to set up a third game against Northwestern scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday at the United Center in the first round of the tournament.
Few are predicting that Illinois goes on a run of five wins in five days to punch an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. After all, the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, according to KenPom, and no team has completed a five-in-five since the conference expanded for the 2015 tournament. Rutgers, last season, won two games before losing to Purdue in the quarterfinals.
It's a tough, tricky road to navigate, even in a conference that's been as unpredictable as the Big Ten. But the Illini don't appear deterred by an otherwise daunting task.
“It’s going to be fun," freshman Ayo Dosunmu said. "We know we have to take each game at a time. We know what we can do. It’s actually fun and getting me excited, just knowing, because really, no one thinks we can do it. We really have nothing to lose."
For months Dosunmu has mentioned making history, seemingly meaning an improbable tournament run.
“We feel like we can do it again," Dosunmu said of the last win streak. "The tables are set for us to compete. We have to be locked in mentally and physically. We can do it. I believe so."
A win on Wednesday sets the Illini up for another prime time date on Thursday against Iowa, which has lost its last four games but had a convincing win over the Illini in January. The winner of that game plays Michigan on Friday in the quarterfinals. Illinois' tournament run, for a long as it exists, will be the final game of the day.
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There's plenty of parity in the conference. Michigan State is the top seed followed by Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Illini hung with each of those teams this season and upset Michigan State in Champaign.
“It only takes a little bit of a wave to create a tidal wave," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "That’s what really makes this tournament special. I think it’s exciting as heck this year. We’ve got the No. 1 league in the country, great coaches, great players and would not be surprised if anybody won it. The league has been that good."
Before the Illini can kick off what they hope is a deep run, they get a third game against the Wildcats (13-18). The teams split the season series, each winning at home. Northwestern may be without Vic Law, who has been handling point guard duties, after suffering an injury against Purdue on Saturday. Though he posted on Twitter on Monday: "To the Northwestern community, I am well and fine. Few scrapes and bruises but you can't keep a Wildcat down. Much love to everyone!"
By this point in the season, both teams know each other well. Dosunmu said he can recite Northwestern's plays off the top of his head.
“You get more familiarity," Underwood said. "Most of the time you see games slow down. Games become a little more planned out, so to speak. When you become familiar with teams, you understand personnel. There’s none of the ‘I don’t know’ factor for players and for coaches. Those become grind-it-out-games and it becomes about running really good offense, playing extremely hard and who gets the 50-50 galls. That’s what postseason basketball comes down to."
Dosunmu said he doesn't consider himself as a freshman anymore. He's played in too many games and been involved in too many big moments this season to consider himself a first-year college basketball player.
He's never carried himself like a freshman, either. He's consistently given measured responses to each question, never fluctuating his attitude too much in the peaks and valleys of the season. It's been representative of the team. There's no lack of confidence in the locker room.
The task ahead is clear.
“Some teams, they get down, but what’s the purpose of us getting down? We know we’ve got to go and battle Wednesday and we know we’ve got to win and we’re going to have to do some impressive things," Dosunmu said. "We’ve got to stay level-headed, never get too satisfied and never get too cocky."