Notes, player grades: Illinois returns from COVID-19 pause with blowout win at Minnesota

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Da’Monte Williams dribbles the ball up the court during the first half of Illinois’ 76-53 win over Minnesota on Tuesday. Williams notched a season-high nine points in the blowout win, while Kofi Cockburn recorded a 29-point, 10-rebound double-double.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

The Illini started practicing only a couple days before playing at “The Barn,” but you surely couldn’t tell, as Illinois cruised to a 76-53 road win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

After COVID-19 hit Illinois hard following their big win against Missouri, infecting 10 players, the Illini came back and dominated the Golden Gophers in the Twin Cities. Kofi Cockburn led the way for Illinois, scoring one of the most casual 29 points I’ve ever seen and adding 10 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double. 

Jacob Grandison also had a very good game, scoring 11 points on 4-5 field goals and 2-2 from three. Alfonso Plummer added 10, and Da’Monte Williams had a season-high nine points.

Illinois dominated Minnesota on all sides of the ball, including doubling the Golden Gophers rebound total, 52-26, and dishing out 18 assists compared to its opponents’ 10. 

Minnesota’s only loss coming into Tuesday’s competition was an eight-point home loss to ranked Michigan State. They had three Power-Five road wins as well, so the 23-point, Quad 1 win for Illinois was a good one. 

No rust whatsoever

When a team doesn’t play a game for 13 days, let alone barely practice, you wouldn’t be surprised if they came out a little out of sorts and showed some rush. That wasn’t the case for Illinois, at all, in The Barn.

Especially in a very tough place to play for road teams, the Illini came out strong, leading by as many as 16 in the first half and led at half by 11. Grandison had two early threes, and Cockburn was able to do his thing, which made it easy for Illinois to get into a groove.

The Illini did go on a scoring drought before the under-four timeout in the first half, as the Golden Gophers were able to cut the lead to single digits, but that was the only time Illinois played poorly. They came out in the second half strong, dominated both ends of the ball and earned a 23-point road victory against a Minnesota team that has performed much better than expected thus far this season.

Curbelo soon?

Brad Underwood said earlier this week that Andre Curbelo was still unavailable but improving, which has basically been repeated for the last month now. But there is a sign of hope for fans hoping to watch the crafty sophomore guard.

Curbelo practiced with the team hours before Tuesday’s game and was supposedly participating fully. This is the first time we’ve heard of such action from Curbelo since he played against Kansas State in late November.

We still don’t know exactly when he’ll be back, but Curbelo practicing with the team is a very good sign. Every Illini fan remembers how important he was in their Big Ten tournament championship run last season, and Illinois will need Curbelo if it wants to win a national championship. Hopefully he’s back soon.

Time for some grades.

Kofi Cockburn: A

Sheesh. In 24 minutes, on top of his 29 points and 10 rebounds, the big man added four blocks and two assists.

Like I said earlier, his point total seemed casual, too. I’m not saying we should expect Kofi to dominate day in and day out like he has been, but those that watch Illinois consistently are getting used to it. That just shows how special Cockburn is and how lucky the Illini are to have him.

He was 10-19 from the field and 9-11 from the free throw line. His field-goal percentage prevented him from an “A+”, but the free-throw percentage is very encouraging since Cockburn struggled from the charity stripe his first two seasons. He has shown improvement in many ways his junior year. 

Trent Frazier: C

Trent was just alright Tuesday night. He had been on fire over the past few games, so he’s allowed to have an off night, especially when it comes at a good time in a dominating win.

Frazier scored five points on 2-7 shooting with three assists. He played very good defense against Minnesota’s guards, which is what he prides himself on. Good job there.

Though he won’t dominate every game like Cockburn does, his presence is always still felt defensively, and that’s why Illinois fans love the super senior.

Da’Monte Williams: B+

Speaking of super seniors, Willliams had a good game in the Twin Cities, scoring a season-high nine points on 3-4 shooting from three. He also had four assists and five rebounds. 

He missed the other five shots he took, but seeing Williams score nine was very encouraging, as he looked more like the 2020-21 Da’Monte with his 3-point shooting. Surrounding Cockburn with shooters is important, so since he always plays good defense and is the ultimate glue guy, solid shooting from three makes him that much more valuable. 

Alfonso Plummer: B-

Plummer was alright. He had 10 points and five rebounds but was unable to make a three, shooting 0-3 from behind the arc.

We saw more improvement in Plummer’s mid-range game, however, as he made three shots from inside the arc, both jumpers and from around the rim. He also was 4-4 from the line.

This is his lowest point total in eight games, so his “off night” of 10 points isn’t anything to be worried about. 

Jacob Grandison: A-

How well has this transfer addition worked out for Brad Underwood?

Grandison had another good game, scoring 11 points on very efficient shooting. He also had six rebounds and four assists, doing a bit of everything.

His shooting has made him perfect for this Illini team. He’s smart, shoots well from three, can pass well and plays good defense. He may not be the most gifted scorer in the world, but he has improved since joining the Illini in 2019 from Holy Cross and has been key in Illinois’ success.

Omar Payne: B

He played 12 minutes and didn’t score, but he played very good defense in his time on the floor and had a great first minute or two in the game. 

He came in and had a big block, one of two for the Florida transfer on the night, as well as allowing the Golden Gophers to do nothing around the rim.

The offense needs a lot of work, but right now, Payne’s job is to play good defense and grab rebounds, which he showed he can do well tonight. 

Coleman Hawkins: B

We’ve seen Coleman take on a smaller role as of late after struggling against good competition early in the year, but he’s been playing the role well.

In 18 minutes, Hawkins scored six points on 3-6 shooting and recorded eight rebounds with an assist. He did have three turnovers, though. 

Coleman’s got some work to do if he wants to get more minutes against conference opponents. But he hasn’t been trying to do more than he’s capable of lately, which is a good sign for a sophomore with so much potential. 

Final note

I know Minnesota isn’t great, but this was a really good win for Illinois. With a tough part of the schedule coming up in a little over a week, it was important for the Illini to earn a road win to improve to 3-0 in conference play.

First-year head coach Ben Johnson has had his team prepared all year, only losing to a good Michigan State team by eight, so for Illinois to dominate after barely practicing for two weeks is very impressive. 

Lots of credit to Brad Underwood and crew for having the team prepared, and credit to the players for coming out strong. Very nice win. 

@JPietsch14

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