The Big Ten had some of the best teams in college basketball last season. Ohio State was a top contender despite losing early, and Michigan was right up there. One surprise was Illinois being so dominant in the regular season.
The Fighting Illini were widely seen as the best team outside of Gonzaga during the regular season. They failed to win the Big Ten, but they still earned one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, they failed to reach the Sweet 16 after losing to Loyola of Chicago.
The bad news is that Illinois failed to reach their goals last year. The good news is that they are returning plenty of key stars for this season. While Ayo Dosunmu will be drafted in a few days, the Fighting Illini return Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn is the leading returner in points and rebounds. He is a pivotal piece to this year’s team, but how will his return help Illinois?
Illinois has +1600 odds to win it all this year, and that is partly because of Cockburn’s return. So, what is a realistic expectation for the Fighting Illini in 2021-22?
Why Kofi Cockburn Is So Good
The Jamaican center has one advantage that can’t truly be stopped, and that is his size. He’s one of the heaviest players in college basketball and is listed at 7’0”. With that much size and strength, it’s hard to scheme around him. He’s simply going to bully you in the post on a consistent basis.
There are typical weaknesses that come with being so large, but Cockburn avoids these. He only averages 2.5 fouls a game, so it’s hard to keep him off the floor with foul trouble. He’s not a perimeter threat, but he doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t shoot outside the paint, and that’s better than him forcing a bad shot at the elbow. Cockburn was a consensus All-American last season, and it is easy to see why. He was a monster on the offensive glass, and he averaged 1.3 blocks per game.
Still, there are a few red flags. He needs to work on his accuracy from the free-throw line. While foul trouble wasn’t a concern, he still only played 28 minutes per game. He’ll need to bump that up this season if he wants to prove that he can be a consistent NBA presence. At the end of the day, the pros far outweigh the cons.
What Illinois Needs to Make It Back
Illinois was a solid team last year, and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about 2022. Still, they need to prove that they are better than they were despite losing their leading scorer.
What does Illinois need? First and foremost, you have to replace Dosunmu. He facilitated the offense and made things easier for everyone else. That is not something Cockburn can do. Cockburn doesn’t facilitate from the wing. He dominates from the block.
Because of this, expect more from Curbelo and Frazier. Still, they’ll need to find more chemistry with Cockburn. They are quality facilitators, but this is a multifaceted offense that has plenty of moving parts. They need to get their own, but they have to put Cockburn in a position to succeed.
Also, Illinois needs to learn from the mistakes they made in the NCAA Tournament. They faced a tough test, but the fact remains that you can never play a game cold. They failed at the worst possible moment, and the leadership on the roster has to fix that.
How Does Cockburn Help Things?
Cockburn is a threat that few teams can stop. He is liable to dominate any game if the opposing roster wants to play small. If he can work on his conditioning and see more minutes, he will be ready to dominate the Big Ten once again. Take it into consideration for your NCAAB picks.
Cockburn brings leadership and experience. He knows what it takes to win, and he’s ready to prove himself this season with the Fighting Illini. Watch out, college basketball fans. If everything falls into place, Illinois could be hoisting the trophy at the end of the season.