My Two Cents: Illinois' Good-News Weekend Changes Balance of Big Ten Race

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Just like that, with a quick snap of the fingers, we now have the team to beat in the Big Ten next year if and when the college basketball season starts.

Shockingly, it's the Fighting Illini, something we haven't been able to say for a long time.

Illinois is now officially loaded — and it's stunning how this weekend played out. In the span of just a few hours, Illinois stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn — sure-fire NBA players at some point — both decided to return to Champaign.

I did not see that coming. 

I really figured both of them were gone. Dosunmu looked so NBA-ready last year, especially the way he ended games in the clutch, shooting Michael Jordan-like daggers on multiple occasions. He announced late Friday night that he was coming back for his junior season, and he mentioned "national championship'' in his video announcing his return.

To him, that mattered more than NBA dollars, which were certainly there for the taking right now.

Cockburn, who was the Big Ten Freshman of the year ahead of Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, was a little less of a surprise because there's still a lot to his game that needs refinement. But you can't coach size, and he's got it. He's a legit 7-feet, and a solid 290 pounds. He could be scary good by this time next year.

Without them, Illinois was just going to be another team. Now, they are on the national radar for sure. They're the Big Ten favorites in my book right now, though we're still waiting on Luka Garza's decision at Iowa.  

Look at Illinois' 2020-21 starting five: Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu, Da'Monte Williams, Giorgi Bezhanshvili, Kofi Cockburn. That's probably the best starting lineup in the league right now, and this team is deep, too.

In a mere 17-hour period, everything changed.

Now, Illinois will be ranked in the preseason polls for sure, something that hasn't happened since 2010. They have a great chance to win the Big Ten, something they haven't done since 2005. Dosunmu and Cockburn will BOTH be All-American candidates.

Cockburn was named the Big Ten Conference’s Freshman of the Year selection by both the media and coaches after averaging 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 53.2 percent from the field. The 7-foot, 290-pound center from Queens, N.Y., was an unanimous selection to the coaches' All-Freshman team and was a third-team All-Big Ten pick by the media, while garnering All-Big Ten honorable mention accolades from the coaches.

What does it mean for Indiana? Without them, the Hoosiers are a better team for sure, but now, I don't think so. I am on record as saying I thought that Jackson-Davis was going to be the Big Ten player of the year this year, but that was because I thought for sure that Dosunmu and Cockburn were turning pro. (Garza, too, for that matter.)

That's the problem with making preseason predictions too early.

In any case, there's no doubt that the Big Ten is going to be loaded once again. Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State and going to be great, too. I still think Indiana can be a top-five team in the league, but it's going to have to keep getting better because every night is going to be tough.

So, COVID, go away!! I want this basketball season to happen uninterrupted.