Ayo Dosunmu was Illinois’ best player last season, but big man Kofi Cockburn was the most important. Illinois coach Brad Underwood revamped everything from the very moment that the 7-foot, 285-pound manchild stepped on Illinois’ campus in 2020. He changed the Illini offense to feature more pick-and-rolls and post-ups to best utilize Cockburn. Underwood ditched his high-pressure defense that would gamble for turnovers in favor of a more disciplined, pack-line defense that forced ball-handlers to make a tough decision. They could either shoot a contested midrange jumper or they could attempt to finish over Cockburn at the rim.
Cockburn’s presence on defense helped the Illini finish seventh in the country on adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. Cockburn was an absolute menace offensively. The All-American big man led the country in dunks (78) and averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 65 percent from the field. Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament Title earned a No. 1 seed before falling to Loyola in the second round.
Cockburn declared for the 2021 NBA Draft and competed at the NBA G-League Elite Camp in June. But he didn’t earn an invite to the NBA Combine. With the introduction of name, image and likeness deals coming to collegiate athletes, Cockburn decided to return to Illinois after briefly flirting with the idea of heading to Kentucky or Florida State.
With one of the best big men in the country back in the fold, Underwood and Illinois have big plans to amend for an early March exit. Even with Dosunmu off to the NBA, the Illini bring back loads of experience. Sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo is the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and will be one of the big breakout candidates in the country.
But none of it matters without Cockburn. Underwood’s defense thrives when Cockburn is in the game. Illinois’ offensive efficiency skyrockets when Cockburn is on the floor. Dosunmu was a program-changer when he decided to stay home and play at Illinois. But Underwood and Dosunmu might not have turned the Illini program around with Cockburn.
Now, Cockburn gets to be the face of the team in 2021-22.
“Just keep doing what I’m doing,” Cockburn told the Big Ten Network’s Andy Katz about the mindset switch of playing without Dosunmu. “Keep working hard. Keep trusting my teammates. Keep bonding with them. Keep showing them that I care. We work hard in practice and we go out there and do it together, it’s going to be way easier. Getting them on the same page and making sure that everybody’s focus is on winning. Once we do that, everything will fall into place.”
The resurgence of the big man is on center stage in the Big Ten. Cockburn is at the top of the list, alongside Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Purdue’s Trevion Williams, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Ohio State’s EJ Liddell.
Cockburn is at his best when he plays against the elite competition. He posted 16 points and nine rebounds against Liddell and Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game. Cockburn had a 14-point, 10-rebound, double-double against Williams and Purdue. Cockburn had two double-doubles against Jackson-Davis and Indiana. When Illinois played at Michigan on March 2 without Dosunmu, Cockburn rose to the occasion with 12 points, seven rebounds and a block in the Illini’s 76-53 win. Dickinson shot just 1-for-8 from the field which was one of his worst outings of the season.
“Three favorite things are definitely the competition level,” Cockburn said. “Every night you go out there, you play against a great opponent. An opponent that’s capable of beating you. You have to bring your A-game at all times. Just that thrill of bringing the A-game and your best shot. That’s the biggest factor. The crowd man. No matter which arena that you’re in, it’s so electric. We go to Michigan, it’s a hectic arena. Michigan State, Rutgers. No matter where you go, it’s always loud. And then my other one is coaching. The defense in the Big Ten is so different than any other league. Every game you play, you have to be locked in offensively or else you’re going to lose. The emphasis on defense in the Big Ten is outrageous.”
Curbelo will form a high-upside backcourt with veterans like Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams. Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer was one of the best shooters in college basketball last year and will make up for the loss of former Illinois Mr. Basketball Adam Miller who transferred to LSU. Austin Hutchinson and Jacob Grandison give the Illinois coaching staff versatility and shot-making on the wing while Florida transfer Omar Payne will backup Cockburn at the 5 while also potentially getting some run at the power forward spot against big men duos like Purdue (Williams and Zach Edey), Ohio State (Liddell and Kyle Young), Michigan (Dickinson and Moussa Diabate) or Indiana (Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson).
Illinois is one of the contenders in the Big Ten and will have a high floor if Curbelo takes another stride forward and the new transfers mesh well with the established veterans.
But Cockburn can take the Illini to the next level. Illinois hasn’t made it to the Final Four since 2004-05. They have that type of ceiling with Cockburn, Curbelo and Frazier leading the charge.
“Let’s be honest, there’s nobody in the country who’s going to be able to hold their ground against Kofi,” Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher told Illini Inquirer’s, Derek Piper. “You can quote me on that and put it on the biggest billboard and every Big Ten team can get frustrated with me, but I promise you there’s not going to be anyone who can hold their ground on him. He’s going to get where he wants to go, especially if you piss him off.”