By Margaret Maloney ’23
The Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball Team abruptly appeared on everyone’s radar during the 2020-2021 Men’s Division I basketball season. This is largely because of one player who has emerged from his shell in his third year as a force to be reckoned with: Ayo Dosunmu. A Chicago native, the 6-foot-5-inch, 200-pound junior guard has created a name for himself by averaging 20.7 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 48.8 percent from the floor.
Let’s recap Dosunmu’s freshman and sophomore seasons: in his freshman season (2018-2019), Dosunmu averaged 13.8 points per game, four rebounds per game, and had a field goal percentage of 43.5. He was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection. He was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on multiple occasions.
In his sophomore season (2019-2020), Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game, and shot 48.4 percent from the floor. He was named to First-Team All-Big Ten while also being named Big Ten Player of the Week on multiple occasions. While Dosunmu’s numbers have increased since 2018, why has he all of a sudden been the talk of this year’s season?
The answer involves more than hard work and talent. Back in August 2020, a few months before the NBA Draft, Dosunmu was ready and prepared to take his talents to the NBA. But he had a realization that led him to withdraw. In a video Dosunmu posted on Twitter, he said, “Since [I was] a kid, I’ve been working, my dream is to play in the NBA. But first I need that national championship.”
This energy and determination that Dosunmu displayed many months ago fired up his entire team. Alongside Dosunmu are players like Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo, who have equally matched Dosunmu’s strong desire to win a national championship.
However, the path to a No. 1 seed in the tournament has not been easy. Illinois’s most recent game against Ohio State was a tough test. The Fighting Illini beat the Buckeyes 73-68. This was the last regular season game before the start of conference tournaments, and it was also Dosunmu’s first game back after suffering a concussion and facial injuries.
Not only was Dosunmu ready to come back with a bang in his last regular season performance, a game in which he scored 19 points, but he was also ready to look the part. He donned a black face-mask, due to a broken nose, for that game and the conference tournament. Dosunmu tells ESPN that he is “into comic books and stuff. I feel like a superhero with a black mask on.” This superhero energy will help make Dosunmu the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as he leads the Fighting Illini on a deep run.
By Leo Hainline ’23
For the first time since 1997, the NCAA National Championship will come back to the West Coast as the Gonzaga University will complete a perfect season and win the program’s first-ever title. In 1997, when the University of Arizona did it, the team was led by five players who would eventually play in the NBA, two of whom had fantastic professional careers—Mike Bibby and Jason Terry. Gonzaga has multiple NBA talents on their own roster, but nobody stands out as a league-ready player like 6-foot-6-inch guard Jalen Suggs.
While he was not named the West Coast Conference MVP, an award that was given to his teammate Corey Kispert, Suggs is the X factor for Gonzaga. He is incredibly well-rounded and has no true weaknesses. His shooting is superb, he has NBA size and strength, he is quick and aggressive, and he can finish in traffic around the rim. If Suggs is on his game, Gonzaga will not only win, but will dominate against any team in the country, even against the other three top seeds.
Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs squared off against the University of Iowa at a neutral location in Sioux Falls, SD in what felt like a potential Final Four preview. While all the hype leading up to the matchup was about Hawkeye big man Luka Garza, Jalen Suggs stole the spotlight and put on a masterclass performance. He dropped 27 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, and was seven-for-ten from beyond the arc.
In Gonzaga’s most recent game, the West Coast Conference championship against Brigham Young University, the Cougars played a near perfect first half of basketball and had the Bulldogs on upset alert. The momentum of the game changed when Suggs took it upon himself to lead the team to victory. He asserted himself on both ends of the court and BYU’s 10-point lead became a 10-point deficit by the end of the game. Suggs’ best performances have all come against Gonzaga’s toughest competition—the University of Kansas, Iowa, and BYU—teams he may take on deep in the tournament.
Only five freshmen have ever won Final Four MVP, the most recent being Duke University’s Tyus Jones in 2017. Suggs has all the individual tools and the supporting cast to become the sixth. Gonzaga is long overdue for a national championship in college hoops, and while the program has produced phenomenal teams in the recent past, this Bulldog roster is the best the school has ever had. Suggs is currently a projected top-three pick in the next NBA draft, but do not be surprised if he becomes the front runner to be selected first after he leads Gonzaga to their first NCAA tournament title.