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Kofi Cockburn announces he'll return to Illinois for his sophomore season

Kofi Cockburn announces he'll return to Illinois for his sophomore season

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Kofi Cockburn announced he is returning to Illinois for his sophomore season. The announcement came less than 24 hours after Ayo Dosunmu announced he's returning for his junior season.

CHAMPAIGN — There’s no need to replace the man in the middle in Champaign.

Kofi Cockburn announced on Saturday that he would withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to the Illinois men’s basketball team for his sophomore season. Cockburn, a 7-foot, 295-pounder, is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year after averaging 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman last season to go with 44 blocks.

The move comes less than 24 hours after guard Ayo Dosunmu announced he was returning to Champaign for his junior season with eyes on a national championship. Their returns, combined with a highly-regarded recruiting class and the returns of nearly all of the major contributors on the roster except for Andres Feliz and Kipper Nichols, who both graduated, and Alan Griffin, who transferred.

Cockburn gives the Illini an established player in the paint, and head coach Brad Underwood certainly made it a point to cater the offense to the big man last season while letting him be the anchor of the defense.

In April, Cockburn declared for the NBA Draft after Illinois’ resurgent season came to an abrupt halt because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, but he did not hire an agent. He was largely left out of nearly all of the mock drafts in recent months.

The NBA Draft process looks a lot different this season because of the pandemic. The draft was scheduled to be held on June 26, but the pandemic has postponed that — and the NBA season. The draft lottery is scheduled for Aug. 25 and the draft is scheduled for Oct. 15. College players had until Monday to withdraw their name and return to school.

Cockburn should immediately be considered one of the best big men in the Big Ten and college basketball. He and Luka Garza, who is also weighing his decision to go pro or return to school, will likely be considered pre-season All-Big Ten selections — if not more.

With a year of college basketball under his belt, Cockburn should be prepared for anything he sees during the season after making adjustments last season. There’s plenty to improve on, including cleanly catching some passes and defending bigs who can step out and shoot, but he’s an established player who has the physical size and strength to dominate each night.

Of course, catching passes from Dosunmu and incoming freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curblo will free up Cockburn for easy shots at the rim.

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In conference play last season, Cockburn averaged 11.7 points — second on the team behind Dosunmu — and 8.2 rebounds.

Illinois will keep continuity and depth in the front court. Towards the end of last season, Underwood brought Giorgi Bezhanishvili off the bench and staggered minutes between Bezhanishvili and Cockburn. That came after an up-and-down attempt to pair the two together on the floor. Bezhanishvili struggled at times after switching to the power forward position.

The combination of Cockburn, Bezhanishvili, Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison gives depth and versatility up front. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Coleman Hawkins and Brandon Lieb give Underwood and Co. intriguing options, though neither has much, if any, college experience under their belt.

Also important, the roster is filled out and accounted for, which is saying something given the timeline in play because of the pandemic.

The coronavirus forced teams across the country to wait substantially longer for players to make the decision of whether to stay in the draft or return to school.

Cockburn and Dosunmu staying around is a big step in roster stability after the transfers of Griffin and Tevian Jones in the offseason. Those transfers, along with the graduation of Nichols and Feliz, could have led to a vastly different looking roster compared to when the season ended.

The recruiting class had mostly been filled out for months with Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins and Illinois added in-state center Brandon Lieb late in the process.

Without a doubt, this is Underwood’s best roster as he enters his fourth year in Champaign.

PHOTOS: Illinois center Kofi Cockburn

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25


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