In a year where not much of anything has gone right — including in college basketball, which had the NCAA Tournament canceled — the Illinois men’s basketball team has gotten a few breaks.

First, Ayo Dosunmu caught one after he suffered what appeared to be a gruesome knee injury against Michigan State last season (which would’ve put this season in jeopardy). There turned out to be no structural damage.

Then, Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn opted to pass on leaving early for the NBA and return to school, giving the Illini the increasingly rare luxury of having 2 established stars returning the following season. In fact, Illinois is the only Big Ten school with 2 players on the 50-player preseason list for the Naismith Trophy. Dosunmu, in particular, seemed like a lock to go pro, as there was a 99.9 percent chance he was gone, by his own estimation. But the pandemic hindered many prospects’ opportunities to work out for NBA teams, and Dosunmu decided his best chance to improve his stock was by coming back to Champaign.

That good fortune is reflected in the 8th-ranked Illini’s outsized expectations for the 2020-21 season, which marks the 1st time in 10 years they are ranked in the AP poll. The media convincingly chose Illinois as the favorites in the Big Ten preseason poll, as they received 16 of 28 1st-place votes and 376 out of a 392 possible points. This will be Illinois’ most anticipated season since 2005-06, when they were coming off a national championship game appearance and a Big Ten title.

Can Illinois deliver a season the likes of which fans haven’t seen since the start of Bruce Weber’s tenure? Brad Underwood, who is 47-49 in 3 seasons, has the group to do it.

Best player

College basketball has been hit hard by players fleeing for the NBA, so getting Dosunmu back is a huge win. The sport needs recognizable names early to draw in the general viewer, at least until the freshmen establish themselves.

Dosunmu is not only the best player on Illinois, he may be the best in all of college basketball. Andy Katz rated Dosunmu as the No. 2 returning player in the country, behind only Iowa’s Luke Garza. The Athletic’s CJ Moore tabbed Dosunmu as the top guard in the country. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander ranked Dosunmu as the No. 3 overall player in the country.

Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season, but it’s about more than stats for the junior. He elevated Illinois in the closing minutes of games, earning a reputation as one of the most clutch players in all of college basketball.

The Chicago native has a chance to bring the Illini back to their former glory, and a starved fan base has every reason to believe he can do it.

Best newcomer

Freshman Adam Miller, the No. 33 overall recruit in the 2020 class, will bring perimeter shooting to a team that ranked 297th in 2019 in 3-point shooting percentage, as the Illini hit less than 31 percent from deep. Miller got 12 of the 28 media votes for preseason B1G Freshman of the Year.

Biggest strength: rebounding

Getting Cockburn back solidifies the best rebounding team in the Big Ten in terms of margin (+7.5). The Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Cockburn ranked 6th in the league in rebounds per game (8.8). Illinois led the conference in offensive rebounds, thanks to Cockburn’s 3.3 per game. For a team that isn’t great at shooting from the outside, the extra looks are huge.

Biggest weakness: anything involving the 3-point line

There’s a reason the Illini attempted the 2nd-fewest 3-pointers in the Big Ten last season — they aren’t good at them. Illinois was last in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage (30.9). To make matters worse, the Illini’s only good 3-point shooter from last season, Alan Griffin (41.6 percent), transferred to Syracuse.

Illinois was also among the worst at guarding the 3-point line, allowing opponents to hit 33.2 percent from deep, which ranked 12th in the Big Ten.

Regular season

The non-conference schedule is much slimmer this season with just 7 games, but Illinois will get some good tests, courtesy of No. 2 Baylor in the Jimmy V Classic in Indianapolis, No. 9 Duke in Durham in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and against Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights Game. It will sure be weird to see Cameron Indoor Stadium not packed to the rafters.

The Big Ten will be its usual gauntlet, but the Illini appear to have gotten a favorable draw. They play Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Rutgers — each of which was in the top 6 of the B1G media poll — just once. Illinois will play No. 7 Wisconsin twice, along with Ohio State and Indiana.

Prediction: Illinois goes 6-1 in the non-conference, losing to Baylor but beating Duke. If they do go 7-0, they could enter the Big Ten portion of the schedule in the top 3, if not No. 1.

I believe that Illinois has the best team in the Big Ten and will win the regular season, going 15-5. They will enter the conference tournament at 21-6.

March outlook

COVID-19 spoiled what would have been Illinois’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013. That’s far too long for a program that from 2001-06 finished the season ranked in the top 15.

Illinois appears to have a good shot at making a deep run this season. Dosunmu is fearless down the stretch of games and can put the Illini on his back. Will Illinois make enough shots from deep (and guard the 3-point line) to thwart any upset attempts from inferior opponents?

The guess here is that Illinois reaches the Elite Eight and loses in a close game to get to the Final Four.