Yahoo Sports College Basketball writer Krysten Peek spoke with Illinois PG and Wooden Award Candidate Ayo Dosunmu about coming back to lead the Fighting Illini in his junior season, the pressure of leading Illinois to its first NCAA tournament since 2013, and his relationship with coach Brad Underwood.
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KRYSTEN PEEK: I'm Krysten Peek, joined by Illinois point guard Ayo Dosunmu. He was recently named First Team All Big Ten and is averaging 21 points and 5 assists per game for the number three Fighting Illini. Ayo, we didn't see you for a couple of games due to your broken nose.
And then you came back without skipping a beat, wearing a mask, scoring 19 points, and beating number seven Ohio State. How do you feel playing in a mask? Is it comfortable? Are you getting used to it?
AYO DOSUNMU: I mean, I just think it's something that definitely takes time to get used to. I've been wearing it around the house all day. Like 12 hours straight, I be just like having my mask on, playing video games, watching TV, trying to just make it normal, I guess. Because I'm gonna have to wear it for the rest of the season. But I'm pretty much used to it now-- trying to get used to it, I would say.
KRYSTEN PEEK: Do you have an alter-ego name for when you have the mask on and when you're on the court?
AYO DOSUNMU: Definitely. I like Dos Mamba. When I out my mask on, I turn into Dos Mamba. That's what I like. I think one of my teammates called me that, and I just stuck with that.
KRYSTEN PEEK: That's amazing. OK so you elected to come back to Illinois for your junior year this season. Did not having an NCAA Tournament last year weigh on your decision to come back this year and lead the team?
AYO DOSUNMU: Definitely. I thought that last year we had a chance to do something special. So this year I think we have a great chance to be special. And I knew coming back with the coaching staff and the recruits coming in, the players who returning, I know that we had a chance to be special.
KRYSTEN PEEK: I mean, it seems like everything that's ever thrown your way, you make the right adjustments. With COVID season, with injuries and everything, how has your mentality changed this year being the leader of this team versus the past two seasons?
AYO DOSUNMU: You know, me being a leader, I have to make sure that in order for my teammates to really abide by the COVID rules, they have to see the leader of team doing it. So I really tried to focus in on that. I cut off going out, seeing people only the everyday testing guys. And my teammates, they did a great job of it also.
KRYSTEN PEEK: Yeah. I mean, I remember you were one of the fastest guys in high school and could get to the rim whenever you wanted. I know your outside jumper is something you've worked on over the past couple of years. And now you're shooting 40% from 3 and 50% from the field. What's been the key to your success in adding an outside jumper to your game?
AYO DOSUNMU: I just think it's hard work and dedication. From the first time I stepped onto my college campus, I remember going to the gym with my assistant coach, Coach Coleman. And we just would start getting reps up, getting reps up, and then confidence.
And, you know, when you keep putting up so many reps and confidence, you start seeing results. It tends to make you work harder. So I just try to put-- I tried to implement something new to my game each time. And just the Lord and confidence and prayer helped me get better at my game.
KRYSTEN PEEK: Illinois hasn't made the tournament since 2013, and hasn't won more than one game in the tournament since 2005. Does that increase the pressure at all to perform well in the tournament this year?
AYO DOSUNMU: Nah. I always tell my teammates, there's no pressure on. There's no pressure. I think pressure's what you make it. If you attack pressure like it's a mindset, it doesn't become pressure-- just seizing the moment, just enjoying it, enjoying the moment.
You know, we put so much work into our game, into our season. So whenever pressure come, I think we'll be doing our self a disservice by falling into the pressure. So I try to just tell the guys just embrace it, have fun, smile.
KRYSTEN PEEK: What's your main focus heading into the NCAA Tournament this year?
AYO DOSUNMU: My main focus is taking it one game at a time and enjoying it. You know, I always tell my teammates, this is a once in a lifetime situation. Not a lot of people get to be on a number one seeded team competing for a national championship. So embrace it, have fun.
You know, when you're going out there, you shouldn't be playing tense. You shouldn't play nervous. Of course, you might have butterflies here and there just because of the platform. But you should be enjoying the game. Because we put the work in at 6:00 AM to 7:00 AM. That's when all the work was put into it. Now it's just about showing it to the world.
KRYSTEN PEEK: Brad Underwood came in in 2017 and started to turn around the program immediately. What has it meant for you to play for a coach like him? And what's the biggest thing you're gonna take away after playing for Coach Underwood?
AYO DOSUNMU: Definitely. I mean, that's something which I embrace because these games coming up, I'm gonna really miss playing or Coach Underwood. The way he always pushes me, he never lets him get complacent.
He always coaching me with the glass half empty. So, he's a Hall of Fame coach. He's one of the best to ever do it. So to be able to play for him and to be able to try to win a championship with him, I'm just trying to go out with a bang.
KRYSTEN PEEK: All right. We're gonna play a quick rapid response game.
AYO DOSUNMU: OK.
KRYSTEN PEEK: I'm gonna ask you a series of questions and just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Are you ready?
AYO DOSUNMU: All right. Let's do it.
KRYSTEN PEEK: OK. Pregame song you always listen to you?
AYO DOSUNMU: "Smile," by Kirk Franklin.
KRYSTEN PEEK: What's your favorite TV show? "Martin," "The Martin Lawrence Show."
AYO DOSUNMU: All right, last player you beat one on one? Edgar Padilla, freshman on our team. I played him when I first got down here. You know, he was a freshman. He thought he could beat me.
KRYSTEN PEEK: Who's your favorite NBA player?
AYO DOSUNMU: Kevin Durant, probably Kevin Durant or James Harden. I mean, my favorite player all the time was Kobe Bryant. So now it's like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, a mixture of them.
KRYSTEN PEEK: All right. That's it. Awesome answers. Ayo, thank you so much for the time. Good luck in the tournament. And for more information on everything college hoops, keep it right here on Yahoo Sports.