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Illinois Wound Up Being the Focal Point of the College Basketball Offseason

Kofi Cockburn’s return caps what may be the wildest offseason in Illini history.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

All of us at The Champaign Room — as well as the rest of the Illinois Fighting Illini fans across the country — are excited and relieved that Kofi Cockburn announced his decision to return to Chambana for his junior season. I used the word “decision” on purpose, because like LeBron’s “decision” caused a ripple effect in the NBA in 2010, Kofi’s choice seemingly affected the balance of power in the NCAA in 2021. The Fighting Illini will assuredly be a preseason top-10 team and a prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten title.

Kofi’s announcement has truly shaped the entire college basketball landscape. All eyes have been on Illinois the past four months. But how did we get here?

There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start with the day the Illini’s season ended.

Mar. 21: 1-seed Illinois loses to 8-seed Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32 (WHY THE HELL WAS LOYOLA AN 8-SEED?!), a shocking conclusion to a marvelous season. Oh, well. At least I made a few nickels taking the under.

Apr. 1: The first recruiting domino falls when shooting guard Adam Miller suprisingly announces he’s entering the transfer portal, ultimately committing to LSU. Miller started every game as a freshman for the Illini, but had not been the impact player most were expecting

Apr. 3: Florida forward Omar Payne transfers to Illinois.

Apr. 6: All-American and USA Today Player of the Year Ayo Dosunmu delcares for the NBA Draft on ESPN’s ‘The Jump.’ Dosunmu would later sign with an agent, officially ending his time at Illinois.

Apr. 8: Giorgi Bezhanishvili announces that he is also leaving the Fighting Illini with intentions of turning pro.

Apr. 17: Illinois lands a commitment from Utah transfer Alphonso Plummer. And after initally declaring for the NBA draft, senior guard Trent Frazier confirms his return to the Illini, exercising the NCAA’s COVID-19 clause giving seniors a bonus year of eligibility.

Apr. 18: Kofi Cockburn declares for the NBA Draft but does not hire an agent, leaving open the possibility of returning to the Illini.

Apr. 20: Backup big man Jermaine Hamlin also leaves the program, eventually transferring to Eastern Illinois. At this point, Illinois officially has Brandon Lieb as the only true center on its roster. NEAT!

Apr. 28: Da’Monte Williams — another integral part of Illinois’ resurgence — joins Trent Frazier in returning to the Fighting Illini for his “super senior” season.

May 3: John Calipari lures assistant coaches Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua away from Illinois to join his staff at Kentucky, despite rumors that Illini AD Josh Whitman was offering each assistant lucrative deals to stay in Champaign.

May 6: Brad Underwood hires Virginia Tech assistant & Illinois alum Chester Frazier, who quickly helps the Illini land two top-100 recruits for the 2022 class — Sencire Harris & Jayden Epps.

May 21: Illinois loses a third assistant coach in less than three weeks, as Stephen Gentry leaves to take a similar position at national runner-up Gonzaga, his alma mater.

May 27: Kofi Cockburn announces his intentions of staying in the NBA Draft, shooting down any hope (at that time) that he would return to Illinois for his junior year.

June 30: The NCAA adopts a preliminary Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) policy, allowing college athletes to earn money from various ventures while still maintaining their eligibility and “amateur” status.

July 1: Kofi Cockburn enters the transfer portal, but remains in the NBA Draft. Now comes the swirling about joining Antigua at Kentucky, of which I’ll have plenty to say in just a bit.

July 6: Kofi officially withdraws his name from the NBA Draft, but stays in the transfer portal.

May, June & July: The Illini are spurned by multiple transfer bigs, notably UMass’ Tre Mitchell (commits to Texas), Syracuse’s Quincy Guerrier (Oregon), Marquette’s Dawson Garcia (North Carolina) & Oral Roberts’ Kevin Obanor (Texas Tech) — how much their decisions were specifically linked to Kofi’s indecision is something we’ll probably never know for sure.

July 13: Cockburn reveals his decision date on social media and lists Illinois (duh!), Kentucky (duh!), and Florida State (huh?) as his final three schools.


Which leads us to the here and now. Kofi is back reppin’ the orange & blue for (at least) one more season. He’ll enter 2021-22 as a preseason First Team All-Big Ten selection and will be on everyone’s preseason ballot for National Player of the Year. And Illinois will be very highly ranked to start the new campaign. Now that that’s done with...let’s talk about the Big Blue elephant in the room.

Kentucky’s flirtation with Kofi is understandable — he was in the transfer portal, and the seven-footer may be the most elite big man in the country. What team WOULDN’T want a bruiser like Kofi around the rim? And, as previously noted, Orlando Antigua recruited him to Illinois. Kentucky had a down year, so why not pursue him? Hell, even Fighting Illini fans assumed Kofi was headed to Lexington.

Now, it’s impossible to know what was and wasn’t said to Kofi, but there was at least one report that people around the UK program (presumably Antigua & Coleman) “encouraged” Kofi to run it back with the Illini — whether or not that take is “damage control” is strictly a matter of opinion. But another report speculated that Kentucky coach John Calipari never even spoke to Cockburn during this process.

Seriously? The head coach of a college basketball powerhouse never had a conversation with a two-time All-Big Ten player and a second-team All-American — and the single-most coveted transfer on the market — AFTER you hired away the guy who recruited him to Illinois? Pardon my French...but fat f****** chance. I don’t believe for a second that Cal wasn’t in Kofi’s ear — if he wasn’t it would be absolute malpractice.

I even read tweets from UK fans joking that Illinois thinks it’s at the center of the universe. Well, your coach hired two of our assistants, and actively recruited the best remaining player on our SOMEBODY must think that.

I’ve gotta give a modicum of credit to head coach Brad Underwood. Like him or not, he’s said all the right things throughout the offseason. He praised his assistants and wished them well on their new endeavors, he’s lobbied for his players, he’s been traveling throughout the country to recruit future Illini. All while facing an unprecedented amount of scrutiny and transition. That’s more activity in four months that many programs see in four years.

Even without Kofi the 2021-22 Fighting Illini figured to be pretty good — I failed to mention the three freshmen additions (Brandin Podziemski, RJ Melendez & Luke Goode) simply because I don’t know how much time they’ll see this upcoming season. WITH Kofi? Illinois is absolutely loaded and should be a dangerous squad yet again come March.

Now I know what it feels like to be on The Bachelorette. Kofi gave us the final rose. Now let’s cut down some more nets!