When Illinois attended Big Ten football media days Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the overarching story was first-year coach Bret Bielema’s return to the conference. Bielema was the head coach at Wisconsin from 2006-12, leading the Badgers to three straight Big Ten championships, the last two at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The 51-year-old described his return to the Colts’ field as a “full circle” moment in his career, and Illini athletic director Josh Whitman spoke highly of Bielema’s first seven months on the job.
Watch now: Illinois’ Bret Bielema sees career come ‘full circle’ at Big Ten football media days
However, despite nearly all of the focus being on football, Whitman still took a moment while in Indianapolis to share his thoughts on perhaps Illinois’ most exciting news of the summer: the return of Kofi Cockburn.
The star center initially declared for the 2021 NBA Draft and then entered the NCAA transfer portal before eventually rejoining the Illini.
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“I think that obviously it’s something that was a win-win for everybody,” Whitman said. “I’m really proud of Kofi for the way he went through his process, how deliberative he was, all of the different factors that he took into consideration. I had the chance to stay in pretty regular contact with him as he was going through his deliberations.
“I think the opportunity to build a really meaningful legacy in the history of a program with Illinois’ stature was something that excited him. And obviously now we have a chance to have one of the most memorable seasons in school history, and that would only further cement his place in our program’s record books.”
Cockburn was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2019-20 and was named a consensus Second Team All-American last season, becoming the first center in program history to receive a consensus All-American nod. The 7-footer averaged 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per while shooting 65.4% during the 2020-21 campaign.
His dominance helped Illinois win a single-season record 19 games against conference opponents en route to claiming its first Big Ten Tournament championship in 16 years.
According to Whitman, even if Cockburn hadn’t returned to the Illini for his junior season, his jersey would’ve still been on its way to the rafters of State Farm Center. However, he’s thrilled that Cockburn isn’t satisfied.
“I think it speaks volumes about who Kofi is as a person, as a competitor. I think a lot of times people don’t realize that if you want to be great, it’s not about getting your jersey in the rafters. It’s not about being recognized in some way,” Whitman said. “Ultimately it’s about knowing that you absolutely did everything you could to make yourself as good as you can possibly be, and Kofi understands that. … He’s just a really unique individual who continues to find ways to squeeze every drop of potential out of his body and out of his mind, and that’s something I think we’ll be celebrating here for a very long time.”
‘In a great place’
Illinois’ tumultuous offseason has been well-documented, but as the 2021-22 season approaches, Illini coach Brad Underwood believes his team is right where it needs to be.
“To say it’s been an interesting offseason is really an understatement,” Underwood said last week. ” … At some point, (we’ll) get a couple days and exhale and we’ll do that. But all in all, we’re in a great place. Even though it’s been hectic and busy, it’s been really positive.”
All three of Illinois’ full-time assistants from last season are now with different programs. Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman left Champaign to join John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, while Stephen Gentry ended his Illini tenure to join the staff at his alma mater and last season’s NCAA Tournament runner-up, Gonzaga.
Illinois hired former Illini guard Chester Frazier and promoted Geoff Alexander in May to fill two of those vacancies, and rounded out its full-time assistant trio with the hiring of Chicago native and former DePaul assistant Tim Anderson earlier this month. Anderson’s first day was Monday, but the changes from last season weren’t limited to the coaching staff.
The program will also be without two starters from the 2020-21 campaign — consensus First Team All-American point guard Ayo Dosunmu and guard Adam Miller. Dosunmu is expected to hear his name called in the NBA Draft on Thursday, while Miller transferred to LSU.
Cockburn’s aforementioned return solidifies Illinois as one of the top programs in the country, and while he is a National Player of the Year candidate, according to Underwood, the Illini also have a talented supporting cast.
Fifth-year guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are back thanks to an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19. Frazier made the Big Ten All-Defensive Team last season, while Williams shot a blistering 54.7% on 3-pointers.
“Trent and Da’Monte have been in 100-plus games. You’re talking about guys that have a lot of experience, and there’s tremendous value in that,” Underwood said. ” … It’s an advantage to stay old. You start looking at national championship teams and they become your teams that are a little older.”
Frazier and Williams will often be paired in the backcourt with sophomore guard Andre Curbelo, who Underwood described as an “alpha.” Curbelo averaged 9.1 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game during the 2020-21 season and was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.
“I think Curbelo will be one of the best point guards in the country,” Underwood said. “You got a little glimpse of his performance when Ayo was out (with a broken nose last season). He was a dominant player and just shy of a triple-double in one game (against Nebraska), and he’s a guy that’s ready to take over that leadership role on our team.”
Underwood also spoke highly of guard Alfonso Plummer and forward Omar Payne, who transferred this offseason from Utah and Florida, respectively. Underwood said Plummer is a “microwave on the offensive end” because of his excellent 3-point shooting and described the 6-10 Payne as a “quick twitch athlete” who will affect the game on both ends of the court as a lob threat and rim protector.
Austin Hutcherson is another player to keep an eye on, according to Underwood. The 6-foot-6 guard, who sat out the 2019-20 season after transferring from Division III Wesleyan University, missed all of last season as well due to a back injury.
Hutcherson has made a full recovery and is on track to finally make his Illini debut this winter.
“(He’s) a young man who tried his hardest last year to be able to help and would’ve helped us a great deal had he been healthy,” Underwood said. “We’re talking about a guy with a 42-inch vertical, we’re talking about a guy who can play (point guard, shooting guard or small forward), we’re talking about a guy who is a very, very good shooter. And that was missed last year. We missed him on both sides of the court.”
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid
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