How the Illinois Fighting Illini became a Final Four contender

Dosunmu ices game for Illinois with a pair of clutch 3s (0:37)

Ayo Dosunmu hits back-to-back 3-pointers in crunch time to seal Illinois' win over Northwestern. (0:37)

When Illinois faced Northwestern in early January, the Fighting Illini outscored the Wildcats 53-13 in the second half, turning a 15-point halftime deficit into a 25-point win.

Coach Brad Underwood must have noticed something in those final 20 minutes, because Illinois on Tuesday picked up where it left off a month ago, jumping out to an 18-point lead in the first 10 minutes and pulling away late for a 73-66 win.

Illinois hit its first four 3-pointers, had assists on 10 of its first 15 baskets and kept Northwestern at arm's length for most of the game despite quiet first halves from stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. The Fighting Illini did cool off during the middle part of the game -- with Northwestern's 3-2 zone causing some issues and the Wildcats eventually cutting the deficit down to 1 -- but Dosunmu lived up to his billing as the best closer in college basketball, hitting three huge shots in the final few minutes to help lead Illinois to the win.

And despite the struggles, the Fighting Illini still managed to score at least 73 points for the seventh straight game, shooting 51.9% from the field and 38.1% from 3-point range.

Illinois, ranked No. 5 in the country, has won six games in a row and is making a strong push to earn a 1-seed on Selection Sunday.

But a year ago at this time, the Fighting Illini were mired in a four-game losing streak and hadn't hit the 70-point mark in six straight games. Now, they're one of the nation's most explosive offensive teams.

What went wrong last season

Illinois would have been an NCAA tournament team last season and the Fighting Illini finished the season winning five of their final six games, but their offense had issues. They were ranked ninth in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency in league play, scoring fewer than one point per possession in six of their final 10 games. Illinois was the worst 3-point-shooting team in the league, and one of the worst in the country, making just 29.3% of its perimeter attempts in Big Ten play.

"I did an autopsy of our season, really dove into the film and the analytics," said assistant coach Stephen Gentry, who is in charge of Illinois' offense. "It was kind of painful to watch at times. It was so choppy, the spacing was bad.

"It was the Missouri loss before Christmas break. The pinch-post offense wasn't working, it wasn't taking advantage of our players' strengths. The most important stat is winning, and we weren't."

What has changed this season

Illinois completely revamped its offensive system. The Fighting Illini went from a pinch-post offense with cutters off the high post to an offense based more on ball screens and predicated on the movement of the other four players around big man Cockburn.

They started to use pieces of the new offense late last season, but with games every couple of days, it was hard to truly change the system. But with plenty of time during the offseason, Gentry and the other Illinois coaches conducted countless Zoom sessions with the team -- particularly the guards -- to go over the new system.

"It's a system based around three words: race, space and pace," Gentry said. "The race component is tempo. We've got to play more up-tempo, create more of those opportunities. Our possessions have gone up significantly.

"The second component was space. Playing more four-around-one, going smaller more. We just got real detail-oriented with our spacing. On our practice court, we put blue tape everywhere as a teaching point, a teaching tool. Our spacing is so much better this year. Playing smaller, being in the right spots on the court.

"Then there's the pace component, playing with better aggression and better flow. Everyone sees and thinks of pace as transition, but I think of it as half-court offense. Keep the ball moving. That's the biggest area we've improved. Playing with more pace and more force in the half court. But that's tied to passing and decision-making."

It has worked. Illinois ranks in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency this season, and is in the top 15 nationally in 3-point shooting. The Illini are making 39.0% of their 3-point attempts, an increase of nearly nine percentage points from last season. They're also playing significantly faster, averaging five more possessions per game in Big Ten play than they did a year ago. Gentry said their scoring is up to 24 points per game within the first seven seconds of the shot clock, which is a statistic the staff has tracked for years.

And the new offense has helped bring out the best in Dosunmu and Cockburn, arguably the best inside-outside tandem east of Spokane, Washington. Dosunmu has emerged as a legitimate Wooden Award candidate, with his scoring, rebounding, passing and shooting all improved from last season.

"Ayo has really improved as a pick-and-roll guard in terms of reading the game," Gentry said. "Using the ball screen in a lot of different ways, different reads, going through progressions. Teams really scheme for him and try to throw him a bunch of different curveballs."

Meanwhile, Cockburn has been one of the most dominant big men in the country. An unparalleled physical presence, Cockburn is more efficient and consistent around the rim than he was last season.

"He's the No. 1 roller in college basketball," Gentry said. "He gets so much attention as a roller, he sucks in the defense and creates these open 3s and open drives. We really use Kofi's ball screens as a trigger to create offense for others.

"We're shooting it better; we're playing smaller around him. It's more pick your poison. Am I going to tag on Kofi rolling or give up an open 3?"

View from the opposition

When Underwood first arrived at Illinois in 2017, he continued playing the frenetic style his teams used at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State -- a style that was based on forcing turnovers and creating points with defense.

"His first year there, he tried to press and deny everything and be chaotic. It didn't work," one Big Ten coach said. "I think he realized those systems don't work in the Big Ten. The defense was complete chaos. Especially on the road, it didn't work. Couldn't win in the Big Ten pressing, denying and playing the pinch-post wheel. What he ran before was so unique, it was a hard scout. This is more traditional, but it's built more for the long term."

While coaches in the league acknowledge how difficult it is to deal with Cockburn due to his sheer power and size, it's the Fighting Illini's perimeter group that makes them so hard to prepare for -- and the new offense allows those guards to thrive. In addition to Dosunmu, senior Trent Frazier and freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo help make the Fighting Illini's offense so dangerous.

"Ayo is an NBA guard. Curbelo is an elite passer and ball handler," another Big Ten coach said. "You have the ball in those guys' hands and allow them to make plays. Frazier is a really, really good player. [Underwood] puts shooting around Kofi a lot. Four good shooters on the floor around Kofi, and Kofi sets ball screens and rolls.

"They play really hard. They're tough, they execute their stuff. They're very physical. But they have unbelievable guard play. It's the best guard trio in the league."