There isn't a hotter, and perhaps more dangerous, team in America right now than Illinois. This is true thanks to its masked savior, Ayo Dosunmu, who returned Saturday and once more morphed into Late-Game Hero to help No. 4 Illinois pull out a 73-68 win at No. 7 Ohio State.
One of the most tired clichés of March is nobody wants to see this team in the NCAA Tournament. Trite yet true when it comes to this squad, though. Illinois is as locked in as anyone at the moment. Yes, top-ranked Gonzaga is still undefeated, but it's had to play nothing but WCC teams for months. No. 3 Baylor looks to be rounding back into elite form, but it was convincingly upended a week ago at Kansas after nearly getting upset by Iowa State. Michigan? The Big Ten champs (on a technicality, Illinois will remind you) just got eviscerated a few nights ago by the Illini -- who didn't even have Dosunmu in that game.
Illinois is the danger zone. Brad Underwood's team is positively rolling as it slices into the postseason, boasting an 11-1 record since Jan. 16. Fresh off maybe the most impressive win of the season by any team -- a 76-53 mutilating at No. 2 Michigan Tuesday; again, no Dosunmu -- Saturday's regular season finale got done via a come-from-behind rug-pull on the poor Buckeyes, who've now lost four in a row. Illinois ripped off another end-of-game rally, going on a 9-0 run to close it and not allowing OSU to score in the last 3:48. In that Illinois run, it was Dosunmu who again emerged to save the day.
"My job's pretty easy when you have guys like that," Underwood said. "People need to realize how damned good a player he is and how big he is, and not just scoring points. It's everything else."
Dosunmu scored six of Illinois' final nine points and finished with 19 points (7-of-10 from the field), four rebounds and three assists after three games away because of a broken nose and a concussion. Dosunmu's nose remains broken, and that means he'll be wearing a mask for the remainder of the season. Call him "Domino Dosunmu." College basketball's masked superhero super-closer.
"Any great player can't do it by themselves," Dosunmu said after the win.
This is true, but Dosunmu comes as close as anyone in college basketball to minimizing that maxim. Freshman Andre Curbelo did match Dosunmu's output (19 points), and center Kofi Cockburn added 12 points and six boards. With Dosunmu back, Illinois looks national-championship strong. He brings a je ne sais quoi to the table that is unmatched this season by any other player. Without him, Illinois doesn't win Saturday. That seems clear. He changes the calculus for his team, for the Big Ten, for whatever corner of the bracket Illinois winds up in.
Saturday was the team's third straight victory vs. a ranked opponent. The school hasn't done that since 1999. It was also two in a row against teams in the top 10. The last time Illinois won two straight vs. top-10 teams, the year was 2005. The stage was the NCAA Tournament. Arizona and Louisville were the victims, and Illinois legends Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown were on their way to a national title game appearance and 37-2 season.
This season, Illinois is 16-4 in the best league. That win total is a Big Ten school record, breaking the 15-win mark from 1984 and 2005. Underwood's team also has three road wins vs. top-10 opponents.
Yet, for this team, it's still not enough.
"With this win we believe we're Big Ten champions," Dosunmu said, alluding to Michigan being awarded the Big Ten title despite finishing with 16 league games to Illinois' 20. Illinois has 16 league wins, while Michigan can top out at 15 if it beats Michigan State Sunday on CBS. Michigan's superior win percentage (on account of having played three fewer games) gives the Wolverines the regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
All of this is more fuel for Illinois heading into the postseason. This will be the angriest No. 2 seed in conference tourney play over the next week. It's almost inconceivable to pull off being a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, yet still having a legitimate chip on your shoulder, but Illinois can do it.
"I know we've won 16 games and played all 20 of them," Underwood said. "We all knew this would be a unique situation with an unbalanced schedule in terms of not playing all the games, but I know this, nobody's won more games than us and we played them all."
It's a group ready to win a national title. Whether it does is a huge task, but one Dosunmu, Cockburn and Co. will be up for. Illinois' 29 league wins between last season and this season is the most year-over-year total in school history, even better than the 2003-05 teams.
Dosunmu is still behind Iowa's Luke Garza for National Player of the Year, but his averages of 20.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists have to be heavily considered. If Dosunmu can keep those numbers up -- and there's nothing to suggest he won't -- then he'll be the first college player in 11 years to finish a season averaging at least 20/6/5. And he'll do it, most likely, for a team on the 1-line.
"This is exactly what I came back for -- and more," Dosunmu said. "I wanted to come back and cement my name with my teammates in Illinois basketball history and college basketball history."
The man has a broken nose. He's going to play through it and don a domino in the process. I wish Dosunmu the speediest and healthiest of recoveries.
So with that said: We're gonna have the best closer in college basketball rocking the most badass mask you've ever seen in the NCAA Tournament for a likely No. 1 seed. It should be phenomenal.