Led by Cockburn, Illinois poised to make another run

  • Illinois's Kofi Cockburn dunks during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State at the Big Ten Conference championship, Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Indianapolis.

    Illinois's Kofi Cockburn dunks during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State at the Big Ten Conference championship, Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Indianapolis.

 
 
Updated 11/4/2021 1:47 PM

For Illinois, the 2020-21 regular season was a rousing success.

Rolling through the Big Ten with a 16-4 record, the Fighting Illini finished second to Michigan (14-3) and entered the NCAA Tournament at 24-7 overall and a No. 1 seed.

 

Illinois blew out Drexel in its opening game, but dreams of winning the national championship for the first time in school history were dashed by a 71-58 loss to Loyola Chicago in the second round.

The Illini are strong again this season. With a No. 11 preseason ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, they're looking to make a deeper run.

"We're excited about our group this year," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said at the Big Ten media gathering in Indianapolis last month. "Obviously, that starts with the return of Kofi Cockburn deciding to come back, a guy that we think is a candidate for National Player of the Year. Then more importantly a couple of guys, Da'Monte Williams and Trent Frazier, two guys who elected to come back for their super senior years. We're excited. We're looking forward to that."

First game:

Tuesday vs. Jackson State at State Farm Center.

Top returnees:

Cockburn, center; Andre Curbelo, guard; Frazier, guard.

The trio combined to averaged 38 points and 17 rebounds a game last season.

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New faces:

Omar Payne, forward (Florida transfer); Alfonso Plummer, guard (Utah transfer); RJ Melendez, forward (Central Pointe Christian Academy).

Payne and Plummer are proven performers from major programs. Melendez averaged 24.3 points per game as a high school senior in Florida last year, leading CPCA to a 33-7 record.

Key losses:

Ayo Dosunmu (Bulls draft pick); Adam Miller (transfer, LSU); Giorgi Bezhanishvili (Nuggets G League).

Worth noting:

Cockburn is suspended for the first three games of the regular season for selling "institutionally issued apparel and memorabilia" in June.

The Big Ten's preseason Player of the Year won't be on the floor against Jackson State, Arkansas State and Marquette and is due back Nov. 22 vs. Cincinnati.

The Illini could very well be 3-0 when Cockburn returns, but they'll be markedly better when the 7-footer is in the post.

Instead of declaring for the NBA draft, the Kingston, Jamaica native is back for his third season in Champaign.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I'm willing to put the work in, I'm willing to put it all on the line," said Cockburn, who averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in 2020-21. "Illinois basketball means a lot to me."

Top games:

Dec. 11 vs. Arizona; Jan. 14 vs. Michigan; Jan. 17 vs. Purdue; Feb. 24 vs. Ohio State.

Illinois' thrilling OT win over Arizona in the 2005 NCAA Tournament remains one of the most memorable games in school history. Michigan is ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25, Purdue is No. 7 and Ohio State is No. 17.

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