Their announcements came one per day over three straight days last summer. They withdrew from the 2020 NBA Draft and returned to their universities for another season of basketball, making Friday’s Iowa-Illinois men’s game as alluring as one has been in decades.
“My dream is to play in the NBA,” Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu said via video on July 31. “But first, I need that national championship.”
“I’M BACK!!” was Illini center Kofi Cockburn’s two-word proclamation Aug. 1 on Twitter.
“Going through this team’s potential,” said Iowa center Luka Garza on Aug. 2, “I felt like this was something I couldn’t turn down and not be a part of.”
Had they been projected as first-round NBA picks last summer, none would be part of Friday’s 8 p.m. matchup of the No. 7 Hawkeyes (12-3, 6-2 Big Ten) and No. 19 Illini (10-5, 6-3) in Champaign. Because of the pandemic, none had an NBA Combine or workouts at NBA facilities to enhance their profiles.
So here they all are, back in orange and blue and black and gold. Garza and Dosunmu were first-team AP preseason All-Americans, are unofficial first-team midseason All-Americans, and will likely be first-team end-of-season All-Americans.
All were big parts of a tense contest that turned out to be the season finale for both last year, Illinois’ 78-76 home win over Iowa on March 8.
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Garza, a 6-foot-11 senior, leads the nation in scoring at 26.9 points per game. He has 49 career 20-point games, more than any Big Ten player over the last 25 seasons.
“He’s the best player in college basketball,” Illinois Coach Brad Underwood said about Garza earlier this week on his radio show.
Dosunmu, a 6-5 junior, is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 21.7 ppg. He is one of just two players in the nation averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Cockburn, a 7-foot sophomore, averages 19.7 points and a league-best 11.2 rebounds in Big Ten play.
“He was more one-dimensional last year,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Wednesday. “I think he’s really improved kind of at both ends. He’s trying to impact the game at both ends. When a guy is shooting 70 percent from the field, it’s pretty impressive.”
McCaffery said that with Dosunmu “I think it starts with the fact that he plays both ends. A lot of scorers don’t defend. He defends. But he’s kind of got a complete skill set. He gives it up. He’s got an in-between game. He’s got a 3-point shot. He can get to the rim. He kind of plays at his pace, and he plays well at the end of the game.”
Illinois without Cockburn and Dosunmu would be a Big Ten doormat. Garza insists he’s glad both came back to Champaign.
“I want to play against the best,” he said. “I think it’s good for our league.
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“It’s a great thing to have these guys back. ... It’s going to make it an incredible matchup.”
The teams won’t meet in Iowa City this year, but Garza said “We could play them a couple more times.”
That would mean the Big Ten tournament and — wouldn’t this be something? — the NCAA tourney.
As for Friday’s game, the biggest question involves the availability of Iowa starting guard CJ Fredrick. He has a lower leg injury and missed the second half of the Hawkeyes’ most-recent game, an 81-69 loss to Indiana last Thursday.
“A lot of times coaches say day-to-day because they’re trying to duck the questions,” McCaffery said, “but it’s really legitimately day-to-day with him.
“It’s possible that it could be something that lingers, but our hope is that we can get rid of it.”
Should Fredrick be unable to play, expect guard Connor McCaffery to see duty at forward and playing time to increase for forward Keegan Murray and point guard Joe Toussaint. The latter scored 14 points at Illinois last year.
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