I try not to be a prisoner of the moment. I try not to let recency bias sway my reasoning. But I’ve watched plenty of Fighting Illini basketball in my life — hundreds upon hundreds of games dating back to the early ‘90s — and I’m struggling to think of too many players that have had a better freshman season than Kofi Cockburn. If Illinois is indeed experiencing a renaissance, he’s played a major part in it.
The 7-foot Jamaican was a consensus top-50 recruit, and it was apparent from the outset that the Illini have had very few players like him. The newly-crowned Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Cockburn is the first Illini to win the award in a decade. He easily cleared the freshmen record for double-doubles (12 and counting) and is already seventh in school history in rebounding average (8.8 per game). Kofi’s emergence vaulted Illinois from No. 261 in rebounding last year to No. 31 this season. When he registered six blocks against Indiana on March 1, it was the most for any Illini since Meyers Leonard in 2011. The term “game-changer” gets overused, but it’s a fitting label for Kofi.
What’s most remarkable to me is that he is putting up these gaudy numbers in the best conference in America while still very new at playing basketball. He’s going to continue to get stronger, quicker, lighter on his feet, more well-rounded offensively — Kofi’s potential is absolutely tantalizing.
Being one of college basketball’s top 20 winningest programs means that Illinois has obviously had plenty of sensational players — Mannie Jackson, Nick Weatherspoon, Eddie Johnson, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty, Kevin Turner, Deron Williams, Malcolm Hill, just to name a few. But many of the Illini’s all-time greats, for one reason or another, failed to make an indelible mark as freshmen. Kofi’s impact is comparable to very few players in Illinois’ rich history.
Here’s my list of the Fighting Illini’s finest “diaper dandies,” in chronological order:
- Efrem Winters
A graduate of Chicago’s King High School and a 1982 McDonald’s All-American, Efrem Winters made an instant impact during his freshman year in Champaign. The 6-foot-9 power forward totaled 385 points (12.4 PPG) and 213 rebounds (6.9 RPG), and — alongside fellow freshmen Doug Altenberger, Bruce Douglas and Scott Meents — helped guide the Fighting Illini to the 1983 NCAA Tournament. Winters set the bar very high for future Illini frontcourt players. Prior to this season his freshman records for rebounds and double-doubles (8) were marks that lasted for more than 36 years.
- Deon Thomas
One of the most revered players in program history, Deon Thomas was a stalwart performer for the Illini, and the only other frontcourt player on this list. His 452 points (15.1 PPG) were second on the team, and Thomas led the Fighting Illini in rebounds (203) and blocks (54) during the 1990-91 campaign. He also set the Illinois freshman record with 16 rebounds in a single game — a performance eclipsed by Kofi earlier this season. The fact that Thomas’ record stood for three decades is a testament to just how talented he was. You can currently hear him alongside Brian Barnhart on Illini radio and see him as a college basketball contributor on BTN.
- Kiwane Garris
Kiwane Garris is the first player mentioned in this post that I have vivid memories of. The 6-foot-2 guard was a model of consistency from the very beginning; Kiwane logged nearly 32 minutes per contest as a freshman, averaging 15.9 points, 3.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. In the 1993 Braggin’ Rights game, Garris scored 31 points and played a whopping 51 minutes in a triple-overtime loss to Missouri. That same season Garris also authored one of the most efficient offensive games in Illinois history — 23 points (6-6 FG, 8-8 FT) in 15 minutes — during a 121-52 waxing of Chicago State. After leaving Champaign, Garris went on to have a lengthy pro career overseas, including 10 seasons in Italy. His 13-year-old son, Kiwane Jr., is currently impressing on the AAU circuits. Who knows? We could see another Garris rocking Orange & Blue in the not-too-distant future.
- Cory Bradford
Another one of my all-time favorite players to watch. Bradford got his Fighting Illini career off to a tremendous start, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The Memphis, Tenn., native set the Illinois frosh record by scoring 494 points during the 1998-99 season. Known for his long-range shooting prowess, Bradford connected on a then-school record 85 threes his freshman year, and made at least one in every game. That season also marked the beginning of Bradford’s NCAA-record streak of 88 consecutive games with a three-pointer. His 327 career longballs are still first in Illinois history. And Bradford’s shooting stroke clearly hasn’t diminished with age, as he’s spent nearly two decades playing internationally. While most fortysomething former college ballers are chucking up shots at a local YMCA, Bradford is — according to his Twitter bio — “riding till the wheels fall off.”
- Frank Williams
The father of current Illini guard/forward Da’Monte Williams, Frank is one of the most decorated players in program history. Before becoming a future two-time All-American & Big Ten Player of the Year, the elder Williams was part of back-to-back IHSA State title teams at Peoria Manual, and was named 1998’s Illinois Mr. Basketball. A sturdy 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Williams proved to be extremely valuable on both ends of the floor. Frank finished second on the Illini in scoring (11.4 points), first in assists (4.1 per game), and first in steals (2.3) per game as a freshman in 1999-2000. Williams’ 131 dimes were SIXTY more than his closest teammate and his 74 steals were the most in a season since Kenny Battle had 89 for the Flyin’ Illini in 1988-89. This mark may not be broken anytime soon — Rayvonte Rice’s 58 is the closest any Illini has come in the past 15 years.
- Dee Brown
Dee Brown will always be inextricably linked to one of the most exciting and prosperous periods of Illinois hoops. The Proviso East grad remains one of the fastest end-to-end players in the history of college hoops, and Illini fans didn’t have to wait long to see Brown’s blistering speed on display. As a freshman, he averaged 5.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game — in fact, he had more steals (57) than fouls (56) during the 2002-03 season — while also scoring an impressive 384 points (12.0 PPG). The best was still to come, but Brown got his Illini career off to a scintillating start.
- D.J. Richardson
Classmate Brandon Paul may have had the better cumulative career numbers, but Peoria product D.J. Richardson contributed more in his debut season. Richardson was voted co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year after averaging 10.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 2009-2010. Richardson’s scoring average was second among B1G freshmen that season. DJR also tallied double-digit points 22 times, finished eighth in the league in three-point shooting (39%), and started 35 games — an Illinois freshman record that, as of now, still stands.
- Jalen Coleman-Lands
Alas, what could’ve been. I sense that many, myself included, have already forgotten about how good JCL was. The 6-foot-3 sharpshooter scored 350 points and poured in an amazing 87 triples — topping Cory Bradford’s previous freshman record — during the 2015-16 season. One reason for the lack of appreciation may be the fact that the Illini limped to a 15-19 record. Or it could be that he just didn’t stick around. Coleman-Lands, now wrapping up his senior season at DePaul, transferred from Illinois following the dismissal of John Groce. Man...what I would give to have seen JCL on Brad Underwood’s version of the Fighting Illini.
- Trent Frazier
A fellow Groce recruit, Trent Frazier stayed committed to Illinois during the coaching change. Illini fans are certainly glad he did. He was one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise humdrum 2017-18 season. Frazier’s first year merited an Honorable Mention all-conference selection, as he led Big Ten freshmen in scoring with 12.5 points per game (14.1 PPG in league play) and was one of only five freshmen nationally to lead his team in assists (99), steals (54), and three-pointers made (61). Trent’s swagger, tenacity, team-first mentality, and loyalty to the program have made him a fan favorite and an integral part of the Illini’s current success, this season’s prolonged shooting slump notwithstanding.
- Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Nobody — not even Brad Underwood — could’ve predicted that Giorgi B would achieve such a productive debut season. The big man from Georgia (the country, not the state) started every game and added his name to the Fighting Illini record book by scoring 35 points — most ever for an Illinois freshman — in a victory over Rutgers. He also set a program record by making 12 field goals in a Big Ten Tournament win against Northwestern. Bezhanishvili finished his first year in Champaign with 414 points (12.5 PPG) on 54.2% shooting and led the team in rebounding (5.2 RPG) and blocked shots (26). He’s not likely to replicate those scoring numbers with the way the roster is currently constructed — and he has regressed as a sophomore — but Giorgi’s hustle, selflessness and infectious personality will forever endear himself to Illinois fans.
- Ayo Dosunmu
There’s just something about wearing No. 11 in Orange & Blue. Ayo — and the ice water in his veins — has thus far been the top recruit of the Brad Underwood regime. Fans had been yearning for an in-state superstar to help reinvigorate Illinois basketball, and Ayo immediately got to work doing exactly that. Dosunmu became the first “true” freshman in school history to lead the team in scoring (13.8 PPG). That scoring average was even better in Big Ten play (14.7 PPG) and he was selected to the All-Freshmen Team. Despite the Illini’s dismal win-loss record, it was obvious that Ayo possessed all the traits of a superstar — confidence, clutch shooting, indefatigable will. He’s been Illinois’ most important player since his arrival and is the kind of player that was made for March. Ayo loves the big stage. In less than two full seasons he’s established himself as one of the Fighting Illini’s best and brightest stars. He’s a leader. A closer. A savior.
Here’s my final ranking of Illini freshmen:
Honorable Mention- Coleman-Lands
Honorable Mention- Richardson
#7. F. Williams
Disagree? Of course you do! This is the Internet! Leave your top 10 in the comments.