Cockburn's return has Illinois thinking big again
For the casual college basketball fans in the suburbs, whose focus shifted to the White Sox, Cubs and Justin Fields about the time Loyola ended the best Illinois season in 15 years in March, you've missed an eventful Illini offseason.
It's been quite the roller coaster. But the good part about roller coasters -- like the Illini under coach Brad Underwood -- is that there's some serious highs once again to go with the lows.
During the end of the Bruce Weber era and pretty much all of John Groce's, it was nothing but downs ... save for maybe one memorable buzzer-beater from Tyler Griffey.
That's changed in a big way.
The ups are all over the place now, with the Illini in the top 10 in the country almost all last season, Big Ten Tournament champs and a No. 2 ranking in the final AP regular season poll -- ahead of eventual NCAA champion Baylor.
Of course Loyola dealt a bitter blow to all that, and then that roller coaster seemed to continue on a nonstop down ride in the off-season. Standout freshman Adam Miller transferred to LSU. Ace recruiter and big man coach Orlando Antigua left for Kentucky, as did another assistant Chin Coleman, and the third assistant coach Stephen Gentry returned to his alma mater Gonzaga.
How many programs lose all three assistant coaches in the same offseason? Star guard Ayo Dosunmu was gone for the NBA, 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn in the transfer portal, and Underwood was in dire need of some good news.
The Illini have found it the past few weeks. They hired a former player known for his toughness, Chester Frazier, as an assistant, which looks like a home run.
Frazier already has commitments from a pair of top 100 guards in the 2022 class. Geoff Alexander and Tim Anderson also joined the staff, both with strong reputations for recruiting and player development.
The biggest high came last Friday when Cockburn announced he was returning for his junior year instead of transferring to Kentucky or Florida State. A second team All-American last year, he's got a chance to follow Dosunmu as a first-teamer this year -- especially with guards like the electric Andre Curbelo getting him the ball.
Underwood and Cockburn met the media Wednesday, the first day Cockburn joined his Illini teammates at summer workouts.
"It's nice to see 21 back in the gym," Underwood said of his big man, who led the nation in dunks (78) last year while averaging 17.7 points on 65.4% shooting and a Big Ten best 9.5 rebounds.
Underwood credited his new assistant Alexander as the point person in communicating with Cockburn while he was in the transfer portal.
"It (coming back) speaks volumes on Kofi and what's important to him," Underwood said. "His legacy. We know how former greats here are revered. Kofi's jersey will hang in the rafters. He's going to be a national Player of the Year (candidate), probably front-runner to be honest. He truly loves Illinois, loves our fans. When you put that all together it becomes a real positive picture. Kofi is intelligent and saw that and knows we are going to be pretty good. We are going to continue to work on expanding his game as well."
Before Cockburn entered the transfer portal, he withdrew from the NBA Draft. Underwood said he was surprised, calling it a similar feeling to last summer when Dosunmu returned for his junior year.
Cockburn called the NBA process an "ego check," letting him know what to work on. Free-throw shooting (55.3%) and passing (just 5 assists last year) are at the top of that list.
"I want to keep growing my game," Cockburn said Wednesday. "Illinois has been part of my family for a long time. I feel like I created so many real relationships on and off the court. This is where I want to cement my legacy. I'm going to come back, get better as much as possible, and just grow with this team."
That team has a tough act to follow. But the return of Cockburn, Curbelo, two "super seniors" in Trent Frazier and Damonte Williams, plus glue guy Jacob Grandison, Coleman Hawkins and Austin Hutcherson, has national media taking notice. In preseason polls, Andy Katz has Illinois No. 11 in the country; CBSsportsline puts them at 15.
Underwood also has transfers Omar Payne from Florida and Alfonso Plummer from Utah to add depth, and who knows if freshmen Luke Goode, Ramses Melendeez or Brandin Podziemski can find a few minutes in the rotation.
Underwood said the last two years having Dosunmu and Cockburn test the NBA waters means he's recruiting the right type of players. And players like Miller and Cockburn in the transfer portal is the "new norm," something he might not like but has to get used to.
Replacing all three assistant coaches on top of that certainly made this off-season an especially wild one.
"To say it's been an interesting off-season is an understatement," Underwood said. "I hope there's a little time in August to maybe catch our breath. All in all we are in a great place and even though it's hectic and busy, it's been really, really positive."