A few of the major improvements Illinois made from 2018 to 2019 were interior defense and rebounding. This wasn’t surprising as Giorgi Bezhanishvili played out of position as a freshman, but Kofi Cockburn completely changed the program in his first year with the Illini. He made some of Illinois’ weaknesses into their best strengths. Many people thought he would be good, but I’m not sure anyone foresaw Cockburn being this productive as a freshman. Illinois was one of the top teams in the country in rebounding margin, and with Cockburn’s defensive presence, soared to the top of the defensive standings in the Big Ten. Before the season was cut short, he continued to improve, on his way to Third Team All Big-Ten and Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
BY THE NUMBERS
Cockburn had an outstanding freshman campaign and was a huge player in getting Illinois back to the NCAA Tournament (we all know it was going to happen). The freshman poured in 13.3 PPG along with 8.8 RPG and 1.4 BPG. His defensive presence around the rim affected drives to the basket and also kept possessions alive for the Illini on the offensive end. In 2018-19, the Illini as a team averaged 33 rebounds per game and in 2019-20 they averaged 39.5 rebounds per game with a +7.5 rebound margin per game. That in contrast to the previous year when Illinois was -3.5 in rebound margin. The help on the interior directly translated to more wins for the program as the 2019-20 Illini finished with their best season in years at 21-10 overall and 13-7 in conference.
For Cockburn, there were many games to choose from, but I had to go with the road game against Purdue. With the Illini rolling in the midst of a four-game win streak, they had to travel to Mackey Arena, one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten. The freshman responded in the hostile environment with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting and a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line. Cockburn also hauled in 15 rebounds and added three blocks to his dominant performance en route to a 79-62 blowout of the Boilermakers.
WHAT TO EXPECT
As pretty much all of you know already, Cockburn declared for the NBA draft but has not signed with an agent. I expect Cockburn to be back to improve his draft stock for next year and to refine his game. If he decides to return, the outlook on 2020-21 will be much brighter. A starting lineup of Frazier, Miller, Williams, Giorgi, and Kofi would make for another successful season in Champaign. Throw in the transfers off the bench plus Andre Curbelo and Illinois would seem to be in a great position moving forward. Returning for his sophomore year would also see an uptick in his numbers. It’s not a stretch to see Kofi average 17 PPG and 10 RPG next year if he continually develops his game and gets a 15-foot jumper. His activity on the glass and presence at the rim will always be there, but refining his offensive game could put him in Big Ten Player of the Year discussions next season.