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Illinois Basketball 2019-2020 Roster Preview: The Freshmen

Size Matters.

University of Illinois |

This is the first year under Brad Underwood where there won’t be at least five true freshmen on scholarship.

In 2017, five of the 11 rotation players were true freshmen, and last year there were six true freshmen on scholarship. Of those 11 freshmen over the last two seasons, only six remain on the current Illini roster.

The 2019-20 Fighting Illini are a much more experienced team and will not need to lean as heavily on the freshmen class this time around. Of the 11 eligible scholarship players, three are freshmen. With two sit-out redshirt transfers on the roster, it’s unlikely the Illini will be able to redshirt any of the three newcomers.

Kofi Cockburn

Cockburn is the prize recruit of the 2019 recruiting class. Orlando Antigua helped to land the 300-pound, 7-footer from Kingston, Jamaica. Cockburn played his high school basketball in New York and dominated the competition with his size and strength.

The four-star big man checked in at No. 44 on the final RSCI recruiting rankings and is the second top 50-talent Underwood has brought to Champaign in the last two seasons.

Cockburn can provide an intimidating presence on the block that the Illini have been lacking for the latter half of the decade. The Illini have been woeful on defense since Underwood arrived and much of that is due to the disadvantage down low in Big Ten play. Leron Black and Giorgi Bezhanishvili have had terrific offensive seasons the last two years, but strength and defense wasn’t either player’s calling card. Cockburn gives the Illini a true B1G center who can bang bodies and clear people out of the paint.

Cockburn is going to need some time with Fletch. He has an outstanding frame to work with, but he needs to cut down his weight from 300 pounds and transform his body. It will be interesting to see how he looks after his first summer with a collegiate strength and conditioning program. Expect to hear stories from every broadcast crew recounting how much weight Cockburn has lost all season long.

Kofi Cockburn will be an interesting fit on a Brad Underwood team. He brings a contrasting style that Underwood will have to mold his game plan to fit. If you watched any of Cockburn’s games in high school you will have noticed that he’s not huge on the whole concept of moving his feet. He was more or less a statue on both ends of the floor. He guarded the basket on one end, and stood under it waiting for someone to throw him the ball on the other end.

That’s not going to work here.

He’s not going to be able to get by on just being the biggest and strongest guy on the court (even though he likely still will be). He’s going to have to commit to learning new aspects of the game. He has an opportunity to be a lethal screener and dive man in addition to his preferred post-ups from eight feet and in. I don’t expect Cockburn to be an elite shot blocker until he changes his body, but he can be an elite rebounder, lane clogger and post defender. He has the frame, he has the tools, the only question will be if he has the motor.

Underwood will have to adjust as well. It’s not Kofi Cockburn’s game to be denying entry passes to opposing centers 18 feet from the basket. Frankly, it shouldn’t be a tactic we really employ at all. Underwood and Kofi Cockburn are going to have to meet somewhere in the middle on their stylistic ideals when it comes to basketball if Cockburn is going to reach his full potential in the Orange and Blue.

I don’t think Kofi Cockburn will start many games as a freshman, but he’ll see plenty of playing time. I think he’ll play close to 20 minutes per night and has a very good chance to lead the team in rebounding as a true freshman.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk

First ballot entrance in the the Name HOF. BBV. Verdonkulous. The Bossman. Between Kofi Cockburn and BBV, the freshmen class is strong in the name department.

BBV is a 6-foot-8, 235-pound freshman from Belgium. An Underwood special.

The tradition continues of Underwood bringing in unheralded recruits from outside the United States. Now, we wait and see if we got a Matic or a Giorgi.

Unlike the aforementioned imports, BBV isn’t a traditional big man. He is an oversized and long wing who can play the three and the four. He will be Kipper Nichols understudy this season.

He has good handles and can score at all three levels of the court. There’s a comforting smoothness to his game for someone with his size and frame. While smooth, he’s also a bit slow and not a plus-athlete from the limited tape I’ve seen. We should be able to find out a lot about BBV’s potential after a couple games of live action.

There is certainly plenty of potential given his skill and size, but it’s unclear if the speed of the game and talent jump is going to give him fits in the early stages of his college career. If the Illini weren’t so thin at his position he would be a good candidate for a redshirt, but since the Illini struggled against bigger teams last year I think BBV will see plenty of playing times. With a frontcourt rotation Kipper, BBV, Giorgi and Cockburn, the Illini will fair much better against some of the bigger and stronger teams on the Big Ten schedule.

At the end of the year I think you will see BBV check in at around 10 minutes per game, with his minutes getting cut when Underwood has to shrink the rotation. Don’t expect anything too impressive on the stat line, but there will be multiple flash-in-the-plan moments this year that will have you raise your eyebrows and say, “Now what do we have here?”

Jermaine Hamlin

The Illini needed to address front court depth after the departures of Greg Eboigbodin and Samba Kane in each of the last two seasons. They did that by signing two centers in the 2019 class. In addition to Cockburn, Jermaine Hamlin will also be providing some added size to the roster. Hamlin is 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds from Lincoln, Illinois.

Hamlin was a late addition without much Power Five interest who many thought would end up taking the prep school route. But after the Illini had some other options slip through the cracks, they made an offer to the local big man.

In a perfect world, Jermaine Hamlin would redshirt. Ideally, Bezhanishvili and Cockburn could hold down the center position for 2019-20, and then Hamlin could enter the rotation next year. This would also help provide some class balance by splitting up Cockburn and Hamlin. Unfortunately, we saw how foul prone Giorgi was as a freshman, and I expect to see a similar phenomenon with Cockburn.

Hamlin also needs to spend some time with Fletch, but for different reasons. Hamlin could use to add some weight and strength in order to be ready for life on the block in the Big Ten. He’s got raw athleticism but still needs time to refine his skill set in order to make an impact.

However, if there’s an injury or foul trouble, Hamlin will be forced into duty. Hopefully, his freshman season is full of spot minutes where he can cause havoc for a few possessions at a time with his shot blocking and athleticism.

You should hope to not see a ton of Hamlin this year. If we do, it means something has gone very wrong. Look out for the random one half of a game this season that he takes over and pushes the team over the edge to get the win.