Battle of the bigs: No. 25 Illinois faces tall task against No. 7 Purdue’s two big men

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The Daily Illini File Photo

Kofi Cockburn goes up for a shot while being defended by Purdue’s Zach Edey during the game between the Illini and Boilermakers at State Farm Center on Jan. 2.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

It appears as if we are in a golden age of Illinois basketball, at least to those paying close attention. The Illini (13-3) are on a six-game winning streak thanks to the stellar play of junior Kofi Cockburn, who will face his toughest challenge thus far in the season in the form of the No. 7 Purdue Boilermakers.

Purdue (14-2) has maintained the highest AP Top-25 poll ranking of all schools in the Big Ten despite losing two games in league play thus far. The Boilermakers are just 3-2 when facing Big Ten foes, while the Illini are undefeated with an additional game played.

With so much of the season left to be played, it’s hard to tell who will sit atop the conference come March, but betting on either of these teams wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Both teams use size to overpower opponents in the paint, but it’s the way they do it that separates them. 

Cockburn has been the lone frontcourt star in Champaign ever since Giorgi Bezhanishvili left for the NBA draft last spring. Cockburn has averaged 21.9 points and 12.3 rebounds in 13 games this season, making him the only player averaging 20 and 12 in Division I.

Despite his dominance, Cockburn has flown under the radar within the national media landscape. In contrast, Purdue’s core trio of senior Trevion Williams and sophomores Zach Edey and Jaden Ivey have been the center of attention at times.

Williams and Edey make up Purdue’s center rotation. The two skyscrapers never see the court at the same time, which is an unusual rotation pattern for a team’s most important players, but it’s a choice Purdue head coach Matt Painter has committed to.

While Cockburn logs 30 minutes a night for the Illini, Williams plays just 20 minutes, a bit more than Edey, who has averaged 17 minutes a game this season.

Painter has had little choice but to split up his star bigs considering neither can shoot the ball well, and keeping one on the floor at all times with Ivey, the team’s leading scorer, has proven effective. 

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood has found himself in an opposite situation. His team gets the majority of its scoring punch from the man in the middle, while the outside scoring is left to whichever guard has the hot hand, or split up between the teams long list of shooters.

Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer have filled that role most consistently for the Illini this year, averaging 13.2 and 15.9 points per game, respectively. After them it’s been Jacob Grandison holding the line with 11.7 points per game while shooting 47% from three.

Despite their differences in offensive approach, it’s clear both teams will go as far as their bigs take them. Standing at 7-foot-4, Edey has an argument for the most physically intimidating of the three, but Cockburn’s numbers set him apart.

At his current pace, at the end of the season Cockburn will become just the 13th Division I player since 1996 to average 20 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 60% from the field. Other players to record those numbers over a season include Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bogut, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagely, Chris Kaman and more.

 

@JonesChristianT 

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