Illinois’ Dosunmu keeps a level head

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Rutgers Illinois Basketball

Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu (11) controls the ball vs Rutgers in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Holly Hart)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Quam Dosunmu and the rest of Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu’s inner-circle have always reminded him to stay in the moment.

Failures were bound to happen, so were successes. Never get too high and never get too low, Ayo Dosunmu was frequently reminded by Quam Dosunmu, his father, and other members of his close group. On the rare occasions his high school basketball team, Chicago Morgan Park, lost and chatter about their ability to win games or Ayo Dosunmu’s ability to close out games began, Ayo Dosunmu kept hearing the same reminder from his father.

Those words have a way of being trapped in his mind, and by association, the minds of the players on the No. 24-ranked Illinois men’s basketball team, which has won three games in a row: beating Purdue, Wisconsin and Rutgers.

“At a young age, they always taught me that,” Ayo Dosunmu said. “That’s why when I have a big game or hit a big shot, I never over-live the moment. It’s good then and there, then the next day I’m on to the next because I know the game of basketball can be taken away from you at any given time. You’ve got to just live in the moment.”

Therein lies where the Illini (12-5, 4-2) stand ahead of Saturday’s 4 p.m. game against Northwestern (6-10, 1-5) at the State Farm Center (BTN). For the first time since Dec. 2014, the Illini are ranked. But Ayo Dosunmu cautions to not get too high about the ranking. The Big Ten Conference, and college basketball as a whole, have been filled with parity. One loss and that ranking becomes hard to maintain.

No added pressure for Saturday’s in-state game against the Wildcats, Ayo Dosunmu said.

“Like coach said, the ranking doesn’t mean anything,” Ayo Dosunmu said. “That’s just a number they put through the machine. We’re still hungry and we’re still looking for more because we still remember all the things people said when we weren’t ranked. We still remember all the things that were said after we lost to Arizona and Missouri. I just tell the locker room, ‘Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Stay level-headed.’”

It’s the first time in Illinois head coach Brad Underwood’s career as a head coach that one of his teams have been ranked. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of satisfaction around the program. The Illini haven’t played in a week, but have been in the gym shooting and practicing. They’ve worked on ball screens on defense, and have worked on zone offenses to counter Northwestern’s defensive approach.

“I think that we’re not satisfied by any stretch of the imagination,” Underwood said. “We’ve heard enough talk about being ranked for the first time since 2014. It’s the middle of January. I understand the significance of it. To me, it’s mind blowing, it really is, that it’s been that long, but it’s January. You’ve got to continue to keep plugging away, to keep getting better and that’s happening. Our guys want to get better.”

Northwestern has lost six of seven games, most recently a 13-point home loss to Iowa. Underwood and Co. caution against simply casting off the Wildcats because of their record. They lost by five to Michigan State last month, by five at DePaul, by nine at Minnesota and nearly upended Indiana in Bloomington.

The Wildcats beat Illinois in their first meeting last season, but the Illini won the last two games.

“It’s one of those big games, it’s almost like a rivalry game,” junior guard Trent Frazier said. “We’ve got to come into this game with the mindset that we know we’re the lions now. Everybody wants a piece of us….

“This is a really good basketball team. It doesn’t look good on the stat sheet, but if you look at their games, they’re losing to Michigan State by (five), really close games and they’re in the game with everybody. This team is really going to battle and test us.”

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