After a Rough Offseason, Illinois Strikes Gold With Kofi Cockburn's Return

The All-America big man is heading back to Champaign after all, ending the chase for the transfer market’s most coveted player.
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The biggest men’s basketball name to enter the transfer portal in, well, the history of the transfer portal is not transferring after all.

Star big man Kofi Cockburn, a 2020–21 consensus All-America honoree, is headed back to Champaign for his third season at Illinois, he announced Friday. The news ends just over two weeks of intense speculation about the Jamaican center’s future, with Cockburn choosing a return to Illinois over Kentucky and Florida State.

Cockburn is equal parts dominant and flawed. His 7-foot, 285-pound muscle-packed frame makes him virtually impossible to stop on the block, and his presence in the paint defensively helped make the Illini one of the nation’s best defensive teams last season. Cockburn dominates the glass at both ends, wants to dunk everything and took over more than a few games last season thanks to his elite physical tools and emerging knowledge of how to use them.

Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn

But then there are the flaws—the flaws that made NBA evaluators question his fit in the modern pro game. Cockburn’s struggles defending in space were fully exposed when the top-seeded Illini crashed out of the NCAA tournament in a second-round loss to Loyola Chicago. Cockburn had 21 points and nine rebounds in the game, but his struggles handling Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig on the perimeter were a major reason Illinois’s best season in 15 years ended in the tourney’s first weekend. He turned the ball over more than 10 times for every assist last season, and his struggles at the free throw line (55% in 2020–21) are also a hindrance. These flaws limit his NBA ceiling, and working on overcoming them is the biggest reason Cockburn will play in a college uniform next season instead of a professional one.

In the meantime, Brad Underwood is almost certainly thrilled that he’ll get to coach Cockburn through that development, and his team will reap the benefits in the process. Flaws and all, there won’t be five better players in college basketball next year than Cockburn. And given all the losses the Illini program has endured this offseason, a somewhat surprising midsummer return from Cockburn is the best possible Christmas in July gift Underwood could have asked for. 

Gone is Ayo Dosunmu, who was the Batman to Cockburn’s Robin last season and who will make the leap to the NBA after three seasons, having significantly improved his pro stock as a junior. There are certainly comparisons to be made between Dosunmu and Cockburn’s career arcs, as last year around this time, it was Dosunmu returning for one more year to show off an improved shooting stroke and playmaking ability to scouts. He did just that, and went from likely going undrafted in 2020 to a potential first-round pick in ’21.

Dosunmu’s widely expected pro departure was far from the only one for Illinois. All three assistant coaches from a staff regarded among the best in the sport took new jobs. Ace recruiters Orlando Antigua (who recruited Cockburn to Champaign) and Chin Coleman joined John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, while well-regarded tactician Stephen Gentry returned to his alma mater to work for Mark Few at Gonzaga. Add in the transfer of former top recruit Adam Miller (LSU), and this was a far more tumultuous offseason than a team coming off a Big Ten tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament would have foreseen.

But bringing Cockburn back into the fold gives Illinois staying power in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, at least for 2021–22. The program hasn’t escaped the NCAA tournament’s first weekend since Deron Williams was leading the way in ’05. Cockburn’s return gives Illinois a real shot at ending that streak. The thought of guarding Cockburn and crafty Puerto Rican point guard Andre Curbelo in pick-and-rolls will keep opposing Big Ten coaches up at night, and that duo will be surrounded by veterans who shoot the three well and bring it on the defensive end like Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer and Da’Monte Williams. Curbelo may not be quite as good as Dosunmu, but he averaged 14 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in the three games Illinois played without Dosunmu last season, including a blowout win over Michigan. Curbelo becomes the Robin to Cockburn’s Batman, just as Cockburn once was to Dosunmu.

There will be plenty of new faces on the Illinois bench come November. But there’s no mistaking No. 21 in orange, and his at-one-point improbable return isn’t just a win for Illinois or the Big Ten—it’s a win for college basketball. 

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