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ILLINOIS BASKETBALL

Watch now: 'We're going to be that team with the bullseye on our back,' Illinois men's basketball embracing expectations

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Illinois head coach Brad Underwood knows the team has high expectations after the return of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.

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CHAMPAIGN — When Ayo Dosunmu announced he was returning to the Illinois men's basketball team in a 90-second video posted to Twitter on Friday night, expectations were placed on the Illini.

Dosunmu didn't hide it or sugarcoat his goals for the season. He wants a national championship. His return generated plenty of buzz for the program and that buzz went through the stratosphere on Saturday afternoon when big man Kofi Cockburn announced he'd return for his sophomore season.

The Illini, who finished No. 21 in the Associated Press poll last year before the season was abruptly canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, became a sexy national pick to be a serious contender in the Big Ten, make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament and were being named in pre-season Top-10 polls.

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“We said many times when we came to Illinois that we were going to recruit pros and guys who had next-level opportunities," Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. "Both of the young men are going to play in that league and both of them are going to have opportunities; the time has to be right to go do that. Along the way, our program has continued to take steps in regards to those two. They’ve been instrumental in that."

Without a doubt, this is the most talent Underwood has had during his time in Champaign. He 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. 

He experienced a similar situation when he was an assistant coach at Kansas State in 2010 and the Wildcats entered the season ranked No. 4 in the country. Underwood knows how to navigate this terrain.

“It won’t bother me and I’m going to make sure it won’t bother our guys," he said during a nearly hour-long Zoom conference on Monday. "I think the one thing that happens is you’ve got to tune out all the outside noise and I like guys who have a little brazen attitude and a little swagger about them, and to me that’s important.

"There is a difference between being a hunter and being the hunted. You’ve got to stay hungry, you’ve got to stay challenged. That’s what’s changed for us. We’ll work through that. I’ve got a good amount of experience doing that. We’ll stay dialed in and stay focused. Instead of thinking we’re good, we’re going to show everybody by working hard."

It's been a steady climb of a commitment to youth and recruiting victories to lead Illinois to this point. Underwood was 26-39 after his second season in Champaign before a breaktrhough last year. There's plenty to work out between now and when (if) the season begins. The starting five, the rotation, roles, different lineups. Underwood had plans in place for life with Cockburn but not Dosunmu, without either of them and everything in between. He's still riding the high of both of them announcing their return. He was never going to fill their scholarship before they made a decision and ultimately didn't have to.

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In that year at Kansas State, Underwood said the team was good but wasn't playing well and lost to Duke early a battle of teams ranked in the Top 5. Changes had to happen, and they did. A similar blueprint can exist at Illinois.

“I’m not going to be afraid to make changes, but the one thing I like about our group is the continuity piece," Underwood said. "When you bring these two guys back, it kind of reminds me of some old-school basketball teams at the collegiate level where you get a lot of guys back and you do add four talented young freshmen. The continuity, the knowing, knowing what it’s like to go on the road, knowing what it’s like to play in big games, that excites me. We’ll play on that a little more.

"I do know this: We’ve got to be tougher than we ever have been, we’ve got to execute better than we ever have and now consistency becomes first and foremost because every night out we’re going to be that team with the bullseye on our back and everyone is going to be out there to try to beat us. Great teams handle that piece of it. We’re going to strive for that very thing from Day 1."

No one is hiding from the expectations. They know they're there and Dosunmu firmly set his goal of a national championship on Friday night. He came to Illinois out of Chicago Morgan Park to help turn the program around. Consider it turned and speeding in the other direction.

"I got chills just imagining everything that we could accomplish, something that we deserve," Dosunmu said. "Not having the opportunity to play in the tournament last year, I’m blessed to have this opportunity in front of me. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity where they can contend for a national championship in their home state and do it in the way that my story was written from a team that went from the bottom of the Big Ten and helping attract in other great players to come, attract other players to come and sacrifice their own talents to help the team win.

"That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that only a handful of athletes have that opportunity to produce in front of their home state. It’s something I have the opportunity to do, so I’m going to work as hard as I can, doubly as hard as I can, because I know we have the opportunity to and we have a target on our back."

Said Underwood: “He knows what we have around him and he truly believes (this team can win a national title) in the bottom of his heart. We’re a long ways from that point but I love guys who dream big and or dream bigger. I love guys who want to think it’s all possible. There’s a lot of commitment and sacrifice and Ayo has done that. I have tremendous respect for what he’s saying."


PHOTOS: Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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