“He's a ton”: Kofi Cockburn At His Best When He's Angry

Matthew Stevens

The summary given to Kofi Cockburn by the Illinois coaching staff can be summed up in two words. 

Play Angry.

Normally, a center or player who plays closer to the basket is told to manage the excitement and natural adrenaline through the course of plays because that behavior will result in turnovers and/or fouls. Not for Cockburn. Illinois coaches and Cockburn’s teammates have seen the 7-foot, 290-pound freshman play at his peak level when he’s mad about something.

Immediately after the opening tip of No. 21 Illinois’ 79-62 win at Purdue Tuesday night, the Boilermakers fed the post early to sophomore 270-pound forward Trevion Williams. Williams was coming off a 36-point outing against Michigan and a 16-point game against Michigan State to prove he’s one of the better and more physical bigs in the Big Ten Conference. Williams got four points in the first 90 seconds while trading buckets with Cockburn and then Illinois’ freshman big got angry.

“Yeah, I saw (Williams) go at him early, and I saw Kofi get angry," Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu added. "It's that competitive spirit in him. He didn't back down. He could have easily backed down, but he didn't. He kept going. That just showed the pride and toughness he played with."

By the time the halftime buzzer sounded at Mackey Arena, Williams had just one more basket and Cockburn had a team-high nine points and nine rebounds. Through 20 minutes, the Illinois center originally from Jamaica had one more rebound than the entire Purdue team.

“Kofi Cockburn was great. He was fabulous with just how physically imposing he was and dominated the glass,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He almost had more rebounds than our whole team.”

And Cockburn had to accomplish much of this first-half production without the help of his frontcourt buddy Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who was forced to sit the final 16 minutes of the half after picking up two quick fouls.

“Giorgi helps me a lot on the defensive end with talking and rebounding and connecting,” Cockburn said. “Once Giorgi got out, I had to basically pick up his role plus mine and step it up a notch."

Cockburn, who has won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors six times this season, finished Tuesday night with his eighth double-double effort of the 2019-20 season as he recorded a game-high 22 points and 15 rebounds along with three blocks while Purdue’s twin towers of Williams and 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms were reduced to just 22 points and nine rebounds combined.

One aspect of Cockburn’s game that has made him a perfect fit with the Illini is the screen-and-roll action with sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu. Defenders are struggling to guard this two-man game that Illinois (14-5, 6-2 in Big Ten) has implemented mostly late in games or late in possessions with the shot clock winding down because of Dosunmu’s elite ability to penetrate downhill with control or Cockburn’s physical presence to dive at the rim if Dosunmu is doubled.

“We're just tough to guard because you have to pick your poison," Dosunmu said Tuesday night. "I read they're playing that pick-and-roll just like reading the safety in football...and I’ll throw it to him to a spot where he’s 7-feet (tall) so he’s the only guy that will get that ball."

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood made a point with the media in the days leading up to the matchup at Purdue to emphasize Cockburn’s inability to finish at the rim and getting lost defensively in the previous game against a long and physical Northwestern lineup.

“Coach was pushing me in practice and making sure I'm locked in on the scout and preparation,” Cockburn said.

Underwood has said previously that he doesn’t worry about fouls with Cockburn because of his unique body control for a 20-year-old of his physical size. Despite a three-game stretch earlier this month against Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin when he had at least three fouls each, Cockburn has averaged just 2.2 fouls per game this season and has yet to foul out of a contest. Because he’s not concerned with fouls, Underwood has encouraged his staff to press on Cockburn to play with anger more as one of his weaknesses can be his tendency to play with passiveness due to a history of players in his AAU program and at the high school level not throwing the basketball to him when he’s positioned close to the basket.

“His activity on the glass got him some easy baskets as well," Underwood said about Cockburn. "We tried to play a lot in the middle third of the floor and get him rolling to the rim. He's a ton when you do that. He’s a load."