In the late afternoon on July 26, big man Kofi Cockburn put smiles on the faces of Illinois basketball fans. Not to mention the team's coaches.
After flirting with early entry to the NBA and also entering the transfer portal, the gentle giant took to social media to announce that he was returning to Illinois for another season. You might have heard a loud whoop coming from the state.
Suddenly, the Illini moved from outside the Top 25 to a possible top-10 team.
Understandably, fifth-year head coach Brad Underwood was thrilled with the news.
"Obviously, it was outstanding," he says. "You've got a guy who is an All-American and has aspirations at the next level. I guess the one thing that I'm so proud of is his legacy is so well intact at the University of Illinois. He's a tremendous, tremendous human being and a great basketball player. He's going to be a guy who is going to be lead candidate for national Player of the Year."
Cockburn is a rare talent, a combination of size and strength who ran roughshod over the Big Ten as a sophomore. Bad news for college basketball: Underwood thinks he will improve.
"Offensively, he's got the capability to shoot 15-17-footers at a very high clip," Underwood says. "We'll see an expanded role for him."
The return of Cockburn takes away some of the sting from a second-round loss to Loyola (Chicago) in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Illinois was a No. 1 seed.
The team did lose all three assistant coaches. Among the new hires is former Illini guard Chester Frazier, considered a rising star in the profession.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Brad Underwood
2020-21 RECORD (BIG TEN): 24-7 (16-4)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Loyola (Chicago) 71-58 in the second round
F Giorgi Bezhanishvili (5.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
G Ayo Dosunmu (20.1 ppg, 5.3 apg)
G Adam Miller (8.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
After a strong freshman year, Cockburn picked it up a notch as a sophomore, averaging 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds while earning second-team All-America honors. Once again, he will be the focal point of opposing defenses, which should open up opportunities for his teammates.
Cockburn gets help up front from transfer Omar Payne, a 6'10" forward who averaged 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks at Florida last season. Though not considered a strong scorer, Payne will take some of the defensive pressure off Cockburn. He is expected to work both as Cockburn's backup and at power forward.
Underwood has also been impressed with the progress of lanky 6'10" forward Coleman Hawkins, who added some bulk during the offseason and possesses nice shooting range. Hawkins is also an excellent passer.
Ayo Dosunmu is off to the NBA, but Underwood has a solid group of guards.
Andre Curbelo showed star potential as a rookie, averaging 9.1 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds to earn Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and All-Freshman honors. He will do the bulk of the ball-handling.
Veterans Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams are taking advantage of a bonus year offered to seniors. "Very, very big. You're talking about two guys who have been here with us four years now going on Year 5," Underwood says. "One of the reasons they've been here four years is they believe in our culture. You're talking about great leaders."
Frazier gives Illinois a top scoring option while also playing lockdown defense. He is often assigned to guard the opponent's top scorer. The 6'2" Floridian has scored 1,434 points at Illinois, good for No. 18 on the school's career scoring list. A typically productive year will find him climbing into the Illini top 10. Besides his stellar work as a 3-point shooter, Williams is also a factor as a defender and rebounder.
Illinois basketball is back. Not quite to 2005 levels (NCAA runner-up), but trending in the right direction.
Underwood has the confidence of Illini Nation, which knew there was work to do when he took over. Ending an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought was a big step. Now, the faithful want more. March Madness is great, but the fans are more interested in playing games in early April. With Cockburn back, plus a strong corps of veterans and newcomers, it is possible.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
Big Ten Prediction: 4