The Illinois men’s basketball team is about as fancy as downtown Le Roy, Ill.
Guess what? Illini fans in Le Roy, Farmer City, Champaign and Chicago don’t care. They’re enjoying something wildly different from what that program has given them in recent years. Something good.
Illinois was 14-18 and 12-21 in its first two seasons under coach Brad Underwood. At noon Sunday, however, the 19th-ranked Fighting Illini bring a 16-5 mark (8-2 in the Big Ten) and a seven-game winning streak to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to play No. 18 Iowa (15-6, 6-4).
That’s first-place Illinois, alone at the top after Michigan State’s loss at Wisconsin Saturday.
Historically, the Illini have relied on players from the Chicago area, with some sprinkled in from Peoria and downstate Illinois. This year’s team starts a Chicagoan of distinction in sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, who averages a team-high 15.6 points.
However, Underwood also relies heavily on players from Jamaica (center Kofi Cockburn), the Dominican Republic (guard Andres Feliz), and Georgia, the nation (forward Georgi Bezhanishvili).
The 7-foot freshman Cockburn has been big, all right. Cockburn averages 12.3 points and 8.9 rebounds for a team second nationally in rebound margin.
Cockburn is the Big Ten’s reigning Freshman of the Week, and he took a step toward repeating this week with 13 points and 10 rebounds in his team’s 59-51 home win over Minnesota Thursday night.
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Kofi, meet Luka. Iowa junior center Luka Garza averages 26.6 points in Big Ten games, 5.6 points more than anyone else.
Like Garza, Dosunmu would be a midseason first-team All-Big Ten player were a midseason All-Big Ten team a thing. Dosonmu hit a jump shot from the free-throw line with 0.5 seconds left to give Illinois a 64-62 win at Michigan on Jan. 25. He had 27 points.
“I just love the moment,” Dosunmu said after that game. “I like to seize the moment, also, not looking into the future, not looking into the past, just seizing that moment at that time.”
If there’s a thing the Illini don’t do well, it’s shoot 3-pointers. They have made just 27.4 percent in league play. However, their opponents have cashed on only 27.0 percent. Iowa is fourth in the Big Ten at 33.8 despite going 11-of-44 (25.0 percent) over its last two games.
The Hawkeyes are playing their fourth ranked foe in their last five games. Their only loss in that time was the 82-72 defeat they suffered at Maryland Thursday.
In Big Ten contests, the Illini are first in scoring defense. The Hawkeyes are first in scoring offense, which goes over well with Hawkeye fans in Swisher, Shueyville, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
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