I’m still settling in here as the sports editor at the Rantoul Press as I enter my third week. I feel like I am still catching up and trying to figure things out. I hate disappointing people, whether it be my bosses or the people who read the newspaper. So bear with me where I am going with this.
I get the feeling that’s what it’s like being the head coach of the basketball team at the University of Illinois, except a million times more pressure. As I said, stay with me here, I wanted to discuss about the Fighting Illini basketball team as I think they are in a pivotal moment in the season.
Some of you might say, it doesn’t matter. Considering the team’s current record, their chances of making the NCAA Tournament are very low.
I realize that as Illinois fans, we are always wanting way more after a season is over. It’s understandable, given that the last time Illinois was in the NCAA tournament was in 2013. At that time I was a senior in college, about to graduate with my journalism degree which thankfully I’m still using.
I’ve had a few professional jobs since then. I’m sure as fans we all have expectations and it’s hard to get invested when Illinois always seems to finish below what we hope.
Brad Underwood had his work cut out for him, but given his recent success in recruiting I think it’s just a matter of time. We are seeing what he and his players can do when they are clicking. Which is right now.
Illinois just got its first road win in the Big Ten by beating Ohio State. As I write this on Monday, the team is currently on a four game winning streak. Yes, again, I know, their overall record is 10-15 and 6-8 in the Big Ten conference. Consistency hasn’t always been what Illinois teams have been known for in the past few years.
This season Illinois has an incredible group of players, including some talented freshmen. Ayo Dosunmu has been an incredible freshman. Yes, there were high expectations for him given he was a highly sought after recruit, but he’s been averaging about 14 points and he’s just a freshman. Then there is the sophomore who is filling in nicely, Trent Frazier, the team’s leading scorer who is averaging 14.7 points a game.
Of course one that is quickly becoming the fan favorite is big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili, whose name is a challenge in itself just to write. I checked three times to make sure I spelled his name correctly. He hails from Georgia, the country, not the state. He is just as talented a basketball player as he is a dancer, in case you haven’t heard.
Both Bezhanishvili and Dosunmu earned Big Ten weekly awards. Bezhanishvili was Big Ten Player of The Week and Dosunmu was Big Ten Freshman of the Week. It’s the first time in Big Ten history that a school has received both awards with two different freshmen in the same week. Bezhanishvili had 35 points in the Rutgers game last week, breaking the previous record, which was 34 points by all-time leading scorer, Deon Thomas. That’s not something that happens every year or even every decade. So, if that doesn’t get you excited then I’m not sure what will.
What did Dosunmu do in case you were wondering? He put up 24 points against then No.9-ranked Michigan State. Dosunmu shot well over 60 percent from the field in the game. Remember, he’s just a freshman.
One of the things that makes college basketball special is that the players on the team will only be on a team for at a maximum amount of four-years. And let’s face it, I think we know that it’s quite likely that a certain freshman guard may not be here for that long.
So enjoy them while they are here, folks. Enjoy watching this team even though they may not make it to the NCAA tournament. The way I see it, as long as they are playing we should be watching and following them.
Let’s make the remaining home games for the rest of the season memorable. Let’s fill the State Farm Center with so much orange it will hurt to look at on television. I think these players have shown from their enormous effort that they deserve a full and loud rocking stadium. They also deserve our full attention. Now. Not next year or two years from now when they very well might be better. Let’s support this Illinois team now and show that we are true Illinois fans.
Contact Ben Theobald at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @theobald_ben.