Player grades: Cockburn, Curbelo guide Illini into Big Ten Tournament title game


Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn shoots through a crowd of defenders during the game against Iowa on March 13 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Cockburn finished with 26 points and was a big reason why the Illini advanced to the Big Ten Tournament title game.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

After making the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2010 with a win over Rutgers Friday, Illinois entered Saturday’s showdown with Iowa full of energy and intensity on both ends of the court. 

Kofi Cockburn and Luka Garza faced off for potentially the final time in college, and the Illini big man won the battle, helping dominate in the paint and give the Illini a 82-71 victory. With the win, Illinois advances to the conference final for the first time since 2008.

Let’s take a look at eight key Illini performances from the victory.

Ayo Dosunmu: A

Ever since returning from injury and donning a mask, Dosunmu has brought a whole different level to his game, and that was the case once again on Saturday. He finished with 18 points on 7-16 shooting seven rebounds and nine assists.

The Chicago native immediately made his presence felt on offense, assisting all four of the Illini’s first four field goals to open the game, two of which set up Cockburn dunks. Dosunmu found his partner in crime often, assisting five of Cockburn’s 11 field goals.

Dosunmu continues to dazzle with his offensive handles and intense defense, and he proves game in, game out why he’s one of the best players in all of college basketball. I had to knock him down from an A+ to an A because of his five turnovers, but every team should start worrying about masked Ayo moving forward — if they hadn’t already done so.

Kofi Cockburn: A+

Iowa is always an interesting matchup for the Illini center, as Garza is one of the few Big Ten centers who can match up with Cockburn’s size. After Garza won the matchup between the two big men on Jan. 29, Cockburn bounced back and won the battle Saturday, scoring 26 points on an efficient 11-17 shooting performance.

Any time the Illini needed a bucket, Cockburn delivered. Someone should check on those rims at Lucas Oil Stadium, too, as the Jamaica native had four dunks over the course of the game. Cockburn looked hungrier and more aggressive on offense, leading to Garza picking up four fouls. The sophomore center also grabbed four offensive boards, helping to create several second-chance looks for the Illini.

Though Cockburn drew several fouls, he also picked up a few silly fouls and sat on the bench for large stretches throughout the game. The Illini will need him to play more disciplined defense going forward, as this is the fourth time in the last five games that the 7-foot sophomore has picked up four fouls.

Trent Frazier: B+

While Saturday’s game wasn’t his best in an Illini uniform, Frazier still put together solid numbers, including nine points, five assists and two blocks, one of which came on a Jordan Bohannon 3-point attempt with under two minutes to play to keep the Illini up by three possessions. 

On the defensive end, Frazier didn’t look as comfortable as usual, as Bohannon, his defensive assignment for most of the afternoon, scored 20 points on five treys and 6-15 shooting. Frazier also seemed to have issues with his shoes for the second straight game, as he lost his footing on several occasions on Saturday.

Though he wasn’t able to contain Bohannon the same way as he did during the first match-up, Frazier’s energy and offensive contributions helped the Illini get off to a hot start and never look back. If the Illini are able to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, he’s going to be a huge reason why.

Adam Miller: A-
After going for 12 points on Friday against Rutgers, Miller wasn’t as productive against Iowa on Saturday, though he still finished with eight points, two assists and two rebounds. He also held Hawkeye guard CJ Fredrick to just four points — he averages eight points per game — on 2-5 shooting.

Though Miller shot 2-6 from beyond the arc, his confidence in his 3-point shooting ability is certainly promising, as this was the largest number of attempts he’s had since Feb. 25. While he may not be sinking all of them, the Illini will need the Peoria native to keep shooting and continue to force opponents to guard the perimeter.

Miller’s defensive intensity also stood out on Saturday, though this is now commonplace for the freshman. Once he gains consistency in his shooting, he will be one of the best players in the Big Ten.

Jacob Grandison: B

It’s hard to pick out any games where Grandison plays poorly. On Saturday, he scored four points, including an emphatic dunk on an alley-oop from Dosunmu, while also nabbing two steals.

Grandison played solid defense once again, holding Iowa starting guard Connor McCaffery to just two points and zero field goals. Though McCaffery isn’t necessarily known for his scoring abilities, holding any starter to no shots is an impressive feat.

The Illini forward has stepped into the starting role this season and never looked back, and he’s a big reason why the team has lost just one of the games in which he has started.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili: B-

Bezhanishvili saw a decent amount of playing time after being forced to fill in and guard Garza once Cockburn got into foul trouble, and he struggled to contain the Iowa big man, eventually getting into foul trouble himself.

The Georgia native managed to finish with three points on 1-3 shooting, while he also grabbed four rebounds, two of which came on the offensive end. Grabbing offensive rebounds and creating second-chance looks will be essential for the Illini come the NCAA tournament.

Guarding Garza is a tough task for any college big man, but Bezhanishvili needs to find his composure and play smart on defense. Though Iowa wasn’t able to capitalize on both Illinois big men getting into foul trouble, other teams could make them pay if it happens again in the NCAA tournament.

Andre Curbelo: A+

The Puerto Rico native has certainly found his groove over the last few weeks, as he has grown increasingly confident in his ball-handling abilities, his shooting and his passing. On Saturday, Curbelo had one of his best games in an Illini uniform, scoring 12 points while shooting 6-8 from the field, grabbing seven rebounds and notching three assists.

Though he put together solid numbers on offense, Curbelo’s biggest impact was arguably on the defensive end, as he had three steals and put this body on the line by diving for several loose balls. After stealing an inbounds pass in the first half, Curbelo went the length of the court and finished with a rim-rattling dunk. Nine minutes later, he ripped the ball out of Joe Toussaint’s hands and finished with another impressive dunk.

Curbelo’s improvement from the start of the season to now has been nothing short of spectacular, yet he continues to get better and better in the big moments. His passion and intensity will be huge for the Illini in the Big Ten Tournament final and beyond.

Da’Monte Williams: B+

Saturday was another solid outing for Williams, as he locked down Iowa shooters all night with his defensive intensity. His energy on both ends of the court was remarkable, while he finished with two points, both of which came from the free-throw line.

Williams’ loyalty to this Illini program deserves tangible recognition, and the Illini will look to bring back some silverware to Champaign in the Big Ten Tournament championship game on Sunday, though the team now has far loftier goals once the NCAA tournament gets underway next week.



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