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Kofi Cockburn is back

What does Cockburn’s return mean for the Illini?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Loyola-Chicago at Illinois IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason First-Team All-American. Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year.

The man with those accolades is Kofi Cockburn, who will return to action for the Illini and make his season debut Monday after missing the first three games of the season due to a suspension issued by the NCAA.

While Cockburn did play in both of the Illini’s exhibition games — averaging 17.5 points and seven boards — this will be Cockburn’s first official game action since putting up 21 points and 9 rebounds in Illinois’ stunning loss to Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Initially after that game, Cockburn declared for the NBA Draft and the transfer portal, keeping his options wide open for where he will play basketball in the 2021-22 season. Eventually he decided to return to Illinois for his third season — but what happened during that time he was in the NBA Draft is what led to his suspension.

Cockburn sold merchandise of his through The Player’s Trunk, assuming he had waived his amateur status. But once he decided to return to Illinois, those sales were in violation of the NCAA’s name, image and likeness rules that have since been altered. What Cockburn did then would be legal now, but at the time it was against the rules (once he came back to college).

So the NCAA issued him a three-game suspension, and he served the suspension for the Illini’s first three games of the season — wins over Jackson State and Arkansas State and a loss to Marquette.

“It’s been up and down,” Cockburn said over the weekend. “Three games is a long time when you haven’t missed a game in two years, so a lot of mixed emotions, feelings about it. But I’m back now.”

Despite being upset with the ruling, his head coach was proud of the way Cockburn handled his suspension.

“He accepted the consequences, never pouted,” said head coach Brad Underwood in a press conference Sunday afternoon. “[He] never said ‘this isn’t right,’ just moved forward and asked ‘how can I help?’ He just kept grinding and working.”

But the Illini head coach was sure to mention that he thinks the Marquette game would have gone differently.

“I don’t think we lose to Marquette if we have Kofi,” he said.

The Illini don’t have to worry about that “if” anymore. Instead, Illinois now boasts a lineup that features an All-American — a 7-foot, 285-pound center from Kingston, Jamaica — starting Monday against Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic.

“Kofi gives you a breath of confidence, an air about him,” Underwood said. “He’s been dominant in practice, I think he’s excited to go show everybody he’s worthy of the preseason hype.”

Without Cockburn the Illini have had to play a much smaller lineup — with sophomore Coleman Hawkins handling the majority of the minutes at the five, spelled by transfer Omar Payne and junior Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. The Illini have outrebounded their opponents in every game this season, but adding Cockburn into the mix should only increase those numbers and strengthen the defense noticeably.

Plus, Cockburn’s presence offensively should open up shooting lanes for Da’Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison, Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier, among others.

Needless to say, the Illini gameplan is going to run through their big man.

“We’re going to ride Kofi’s back,” Underwood said.

As for Cockburn...

“I’m going to come out and play hard like I always do. The team will change when I’m on the court. I’m going to bring energy, rebounds, and more offense.”