Illini men’s basketball welcomes Wolverines to Champaign for late-night Big Ten battle

Kofi+Cockburn+battles+for+position+against+Michigan+center+Hunter+Dickinson+during+the+game+on+March+2%2C+2021.+The+Illini+will+take+on+the+Wolverines+in+Champaign+on+Friday+night.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsea Ansfield / Illinois Athletics

Kofi Cockburn battles for position against Michigan center Hunter Dickinson during the game on March 2, 2021. The Illini will take on the Wolverines in Champaign on Friday night.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Coming off a gutsy 81-71 win over Nebraska in Lincoln on Tuesday, No. 25 Illinois welcomes a fellow Big Ten powerhouse in Michigan to State Farm Center on Friday night.

After starting the season ranked No. 4 in the nation, the Wolverines have struggled and currently sit at 7-6 overall and are 1-2 in conference play, with the lone win being a 35-point blowout over Nebraska to open their Big Ten schedule.

Michigan is coming off a one-week COVID-19 pause and last played on Jan. 4, an eight-point road loss to Rutgers. The Illini also dealt with COVID issues earlier in the season, and head coach Brad Underwood knows the challenges of preparing for teams that have had extended time off.

“You’re not sure who’s had it, who hasn’t, how they’ve practiced,” Underwood said. “We had a couple of days of practice, but you know I’m expecting a full team and we’re gonna get Michigan’s best shot and I’m not gonna look at it any other way.”

In a conference with no shortage of dominant big men, the Wolverines boast 7-foot-1 sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, who was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year last season while also garnering All-Big Ten and All-America honors in his first college season. 

Dickinson has had a strong start to his sophomore campaign despite his team’s slow start, averaging 16.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, all of which are higher marks than last season, while he has shot an efficient 59.1% from the field.

Though the Illini got the better of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last season, Underwood praised the play of both team’s big men – Dickinson and Illinois junior Kofi Cockburn – and knows it’ll be a dogfight again on Friday.

“Both guys last year were elite defensively,” Underwood said. “I don’t think either one of ‘em really scored on each other. Hunter is an elite defender, as is Kofi. They made it very, very hard.”

Cockburn has lived up to the preseason hype thus far, as he is averaging 22.0 points per game, the fourth-highest mark in the country, 12.5 rebounds, the third-best mark nationally and nine double-doubles, which is tied for the fourth-most nationwide. 

Without their crafty point guard in Andre Curbelo, the Illini have heavily relied upon Cockburn and remain one of the top offensive teams in the Big Ten, ranking third with 80.5 points per game, while the Wolverines sit ninth with 72.8 points per game.

While four Illini – Cockburn, Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison – average at least 10 points per game, just two Wolverines – Dickinson and grad student guard Eli Brooks – average double-digit points. 

With the top recruiting class in the country in 2021, Michigan still poses a threat despite sitting below .500 in conference play, Underwood says. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. in Champaign.

“They’re a team that likes to play fast,” Underwood said. “They get good opportunities, they get threes in transition and we’ve gotta be dialed in to all of that, but you know it’s Illinois-Michigan, it’s two good basketball teams and should be fun.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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