Life after Kofi: New faces, new brand of basketball in Champaign

Former+center+Kofi+Cockburn+hugs+his+mom+after+winning+the+Big+Ten+Championship+against+Iowa+on+March+6.+Since+leaving+Illinois%2C+Cockburn+has+joined+the+Utah+Jazz.+

The Daily Illini Photo File

Former center Kofi Cockburn hugs his mom after winning the Big Ten Championship against Iowa on March 6. Since leaving Illinois, Cockburn has joined the Utah Jazz.

By Matthew Sinele, Staff Writer

Former Illini Kofi Cockburn’s collegiate career has come to a close, as he has left the rolling plains of Illinois for the vast canyons of Salt Lake City, Utah, joining the Jazz in the NBA.

Kofi’s impact on the Illinois men’s basketball program over the past three seasons can be characterized with one word that also describes the man himself: colossal. In his last season wearing orange and blue, he absolutely decimated teams with his low post scoring and tenacity on the glass inside, averaging a double-double and leading the team in rebounds and points per game. 

He exits the college scene a two-time All-American, two-time All-Big Ten first team member, Big Ten Freshman of the year and a key piece to the team’s Big Ten tournament and regular season titles. Kofi has helped to create a winning culture for the basketball program here at Illinois, and for that, it’s safe to say the number 21 will someday grace the rafters at State Farm Center.

So what now? How does Illinois fill the massive void that Cockburn’s ascent to the next level has left in its wake? To understand what life after Kofi will look like, it is important to understand what life before the seven-footer looked like for Brad Underwood’s teams. 

Underwood’s first big break in college basketball came when he was named Stephen F. Austin’s head coach in 2013. He launched the team to three straight tournament appearances playing small-ball with a crafty motion-spread offense. 

This offense is designed to be fast-paced with interchangeable parts, allowing for a free-flowing offense focused heavily on spacing and cutting to the basket. According to Sports Reference, in the four seasons prior to Kofi’s arrival, Underwood’s teams averaged 60.85 field goals attempted per game, and only one player that played significant minutes was over 6 feet 9 inches. The three seasons with Cockburn saw the team average 58.7.

Two more attempts each game might not seem like a huge difference, so to put it into perspective, 60.85 would have ranked Illinois 45th on the list of team field goals attempted per game as opposed to the team’s actual rank of 124th as per TeamRankings. 12 of the top 15 offensive scoring teams last season ranked within the top 40.

It’s also worth mentioning that the teams Underwood worked with in the years prior weren’t the 9th ranked team in the nation by 247 Sports for recruitment, and with a group of skilled transfers right around that 6-feet-9-inch mark, this team is starting to look like Brad Underwood’s version of paradise.

The first player that looks to be a likely suitor for the five spot is redshirt sophomore Baylor transfer and 4-star recruit Dain Dainja. He’s a big body that can move with ease, and is a skilled finisher inside; deemed a “dancing bear” by Underwood. Dainja has been putting in work with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher, and has already cut 25 pounds, so he’ll be very exciting to see for the first time come November.

Coach Underwood is extremely high on Dainja going into the season. Following Kofi’s departure in April, Underwood already seemingly had a game plan for the fall.

“We’ll get back to playing a little faster,” Underwood said. “(Dainja) is extremely talented; he’s a tremendous ball handler and passer, so I expect us to open the floor up a little bit more than with Kofi.” 

Next is another long and nimble player that ventured up from Baylor, in transfer fifth year senior Matthew Mayer. He was key to the Bear’s 2021 championship season, coming off the bench as the team’s sixth man averaging 8.1 points per game. 

Brad Underwood had high praise for Mayer upon transferring to Illinois, calling him “one of the most versatile players in college basketball.” He can shoot the three ball with regularity and can guard 1-4. His experience is exactly what the team needs after the loss of last season’s seniors.

Junior Coleman Hawkins also fits the bill as a player to look to for big man relief in the coming season. He started last year off extremely hot, scoring 43 points in his first three games, but saw less floor time and struggled when his confidence wavered as the season went on. Nonetheless, last year’s Chattanooga game alone showed that Coleman has the potential to be one of the key pieces for this Illinois squad.

Lastly, a guy for the future of the Illini frontcourt is Zacharie Perrin, who recently signed a letter of intent to the University of Illinois all the way from Grandfontaine, France. He currently plays professional basketball for the Antibes Sharks. Perrin is your typical Euro-League player; He’s a guard that hit a growth spurt and shot up into a post player, and his skills around the perimeter reflect that.

Underwood believes that he has found yet another player to usher in this higher-octane offense in Perrin, believing that he is truly the full package.

Zach can play multiple positions,” Underwood said. “He has perimeter skills, can step out and shoot it, and is a gifted passer.”

With Kofi leaving, it would have been easy for Underwood’s confidence to waver. However, Underwood has made it extremely clear he doesn’t believe in rebuilding years, and is still aiming for that top spot in the Big Ten. 

“Everybody thinks it’s the end of something when a guy leaves, but it’s just the end of a really good player who wore our uniform and had a lot of success,” Underwood said. “This program has had a lot of really good players and we’re going to continue to do that.” 

 

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