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Goldsmith: Northwestern lost the battle for Chicago

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Goldsmith: Northwestern lost the battle for Chicago

A.J. Turner is met at the rim. Illinois beat Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday,

A.J. Turner is met at the rim. Illinois beat Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday,

Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

A.J. Turner is met at the rim. Illinois beat Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday,

Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

A.J. Turner is met at the rim. Illinois beat Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday,

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

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Men’s Basketball


Caught up in his own reflection, Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu stood in front of the television with a marveled look on his face. Before he took the floor Wednesday, the Big Ten Network broadcast showed some of Dosunmu’s most athletic feats from his freshman season. As he watched himself on a screen outside his locker room, Dosunmu’s feet started to tap, and then his legs started to jump, and eventually the showman moved his entire body to the hip-hop rhythm pulsing through the tunnel.

The record will show that the Fighting Illini won the game, center Giorgi Bezhanishvili scored 26 and the orange-clad crowd left for Champaign happy. But Dosunmu, a likely NBA first-round pick, had reason to be more amped up for this one than any game he’d played all year. It was in his hometown. On what he calls his home court. And in the postseason, where Illinois had the opportunity to reshape the narrative of its season.

Oh, and Northwestern was there, too.

There are marketers that call this a rivalry. Technically, it’s one that’s recognized by the Big Ten. After Illinois (12-20, 7-13 Big Ten) won 74-69 over the Wildcats (13-19, 4-16) in overtime, Dosunmu claimed the city for the Fighting Illini.

“We own Chicago,” he said. “We’ve beat (Northwestern) twice in a row.”

It’s hard to argue with him. In front of a heavy Illinois crowd, the Fighting Illini moved on to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. NU ended its season, officially the worst Big Ten team in the 2018-19 regular season and postseason. Illinois clinched the season series and bragging rights on Wednesday night, but the battles between Illinois and Northwestern run deeper than that.

Dosunmu actually gave the Cats a chance on the recruiting cycle, visiting Evanston in June 2017 on the heels of their NCAA Tournament appearance. He said he was set on playing in Chicago: “This is where I was born. I was raised here. So that was huge.”

So in what he said felt like a natural decision for him, he committed to play for Brad Underwood and Illinois, which is a drive that’s two hours longer from his “home court” than the drive from the United Center to Welsh-Ryan Arena. That was the Fighting Illini’s first win over NU in the 2018-19 season.

There’s a world where Dosunmu runs the point for Collins and lands on the first team for the freshman in the conference. But when Dosunmu thought of Chicago, he thought of Illinois. And he’s not alone.

“They call themselves Chicago’s Big Ten Team but we’re Illinois,” said Illinois forward Aaron Jordan, who was raised near Chicago. “When you think of the state of Illinois you think of this school. We’re more prestigious, people come out of here and play professional, we have history.”

After NU won the opening matchup between these teams this season in January, Underwood stressed that despite losing this game, his team had a brighter future than the Cats. Then, the Fighting Illini defeated NU in Champaign in early March. They broke the tie in the season series by moving on to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

After Illinois finished the regular season losing 5 of its last 6 regular season games, Underwood said this win can help build momentum going forward for his team. For the Cats, the opposite happened. They lost the game and saw their grasp of the city continue to slip away.

“I don’t like where we’re at right now,” Collins said. “It’s not about the guys, but we’re going to get to work … We’ve done it before, and we’re going to do it again. I promise you that. We’re going to do it again. Hopefully it will be better than it was before.”

It has to be. The high point – the summer of 2017 – was when Collins brought Dosunmu to campus on a recruiting visit, only to lose the prodigal guard to the school in Champaign. That’s where Dosunmu thought he could to get the experience of playing Chicago basketball. Even at the program’s high point, Dosunmu didn’t want to go to NU.

Now the Cats lose their three leading scorers, seniors Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Ryan Taylor. With Law graduating, junior center Barret Benson will be the only contributor on the team from Illinois.

This summer, Collins will be back out recruiting for the next generation of top Chicago-born prospects, including Max Christie and D.J. Steward. But it’s uncertain if they’ll even consider playing in Evanston, and if being located near Chicago is still a major advantage for the program.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Collins said about rebuilding the program. “We’ve got to get better. I’ve got to be better. We’ve all got to get better. We’ve got to get it back to where we know we can get it. It’s something that I’m anxious to do once we can let the dust settle.”

Charlie Goldsmith is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at charliegoldsmith2021@u.northwestern.edu. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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