‘It just felt right’: Cockburn steadies Illinois men’s basketball, brings first title in 17 years to Champaign

Junior+center+Kofi+Cockburn%2C+donning+a+Big+Ten+champions+shirt%2C+runs+off+the+court+after+beating+Iowa+on+Sunday+night.+Cockburn+has+been+instrumental+in+turning+the+Illinois+mens+basketball+program+around.

Cameron Krasucki

Junior center Kofi Cockburn, donning a “Big Ten champions” shirt, runs off the court after beating Iowa on Sunday night. Cockburn has been instrumental in turning the Illinois men’s basketball program around.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

When head coach Brad Underwood left the court after his first game as head coach of Illinois’ men’s basketball team in 2017, his record was 0-1, but it looked even worse. The Illini had just lost a blowout to an Eastern Illinois team that finished eighth in the Ohio Valley Conference that year. 

“We were about as bad as you could be,” Underwood said. “You become a Big Ten champion, in the best league in the country and do it in a couple years. That’s about as big a spectrum and as wide a gap as you can possibly get, because we were a really bad basketball team that night in Charleston.”

Despite all odds, two players remain from the team that gave up an exhibition to Eastern Illinois and lost a program-record 21 games a year later. 

In 2022, fifth-year senior guards Trent Frazier and DaMonte Williams are Big Ten champions.

“That was my initial reason for coming here,” Williams said. “Me and Trent talked about it when guys wanted their release. That was our whole focus, to get Illinois basketball back how it used to be.”

Frazier was the first of Illinois’ four signees to recommit to Underwood after John Groce was fired in 2017. Williams’ decision was pretty clear considering his father Frank Williams’ jersey hangs in the rafters at State Farm Center.

Both showed flashes of greatness in the first two years, but even the arrival of Ayo Dosunmu wasn’t enough to right the ship that had been sinking for over a decade. When Kofi Cockburn made his official visit in 2018, Illinois lost to Florida Atlantic in overtime.

“It would have probably swayed a lot of people’s decisions, but for me it was a motivation factor,” Cockburn said. “I like taking on the challenge of changing something and making an impact, creating something special like we did.”

It was when Cockburn arrived that things began to click. In his first season, the Illini improved from 12 wins to 21. They have since won more games than any other team in the conference.

On Sunday, it was Cockburn’s 21 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks that powered Illinois to a 74-72 win against Iowa, clinching a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 2005. If you ask Underwood, he’ll tell you Cockburn should be National Player of the Year.

“He should win all of those,” Underwood said. “Do we take it for granted? No, he’s a difference maker. … He’s the most dominant player in college basketball.”

“Dominant” is the word most often used to describe Cockburn, sometimes by people looking to applaud him and other times by people looking to point out a perceived lack of skill. He’s so big that to some people, his size diminishes his accomplishments. 

This isn’t a new theme in basketball. Bigger players, while benefiting from their height, receive less applause when they score because it appears to be easy. But some of the most dominant players are disadvantaged when rules are changed to help defenses deal with them.

The most egregious example of this is the NCAA banning dunks from 1967-1976 because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was jamming on too many people. Today is visible in the way defenses are allowed to be more physical with Cockburn than anyone else.

Against Iowa it was apparent. Cockburn got to the free-throw line just three times despite attempting 17 shots in the paint and receiving contact on almost every one.

After 15 minutes of play, Cockburn was the only Illinois player who had made more than one shot, and when the rest of the team finally got on track, he continued to score.

“We went down a little bit, and guys just held each other accountable. That’s the growth with these guys,” Cockburn said. “Being here with them for so long and seeing that happen in the game, it’s so recognizable. It was a special feeling for me.”

After the game, Underwood was emotional when talking about what the win meant to him. He got his first coaching job at a junior college and not long ago was just hoping to make it past the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Cockburn may have done more than secure Illinois the title. By hoisting a trophy with several recruits in attendance, he may have secured Illinois’ future by setting a much different tone than the one established on his visit.

He may be overlooked around the nation, but in Champaign, Kofi is king.

As he climbed the ladder to cut his piece of the net, Cockburn received a message from the fans who still have hope that he’ll return next season, “One more year! One more year!”

“I almost said it, too,” Cockburn said. “It just felt right. I love being here. Everybody I associate myself with here has made me feel really special and made me know how much I mean to this program. That moment was special.”

 

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