Kofi Cockburn is back where he belongs.
It started as a rocky offseason for Brad Underwood and Illinois, losing multiple assistant coaches, Adam Miller to the transfer portal, and Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili to the pros. However, Underwood has been able to gain some momentum back for the program with the additions of multiple well-known assistant coaches; the returns of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams; additions of Alfonso Plummer, Omar Payne, a trio of freshman sharp shooters; and his second-team All-American back in Champaign for another season.
This offseason, Cockburn found his name on NBA Draft Boards, in the NCAA transfer portal and now penciled back into Underwood’s starting five for the Illini.
“Illinois is my home,” Cockburn said on Wednesday.
As Cockburn returns, the Illini — who won the Big Ten Tournament last season — have massive expectations. The second-team All-American realizes the chance he has to sit among Illini greats with a third season at Illinois.
“This is where I want to end my legacy,” Cockburn said. “It means everything to me. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Also, we’re going to have a great team.”
After posting 17.7 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game a year ago, Cockburn earned All-Big Ten and second-team All-America honors. He led the Big Ten in rebounding and the NCAA in dunks, as well.
Coming back for year three, the Jamaica native knows he is an early favorite in Big Ten and National Player of the Year conversations — also firmly planting the Fighting Illini in Big Ten and National Championship title contention.
“Even if I don’t win player of the year, I want to win games,” Cockburn said. “I want to leave my legacy by wins.”
Underwood navigated this process with Cockburn, as the Illini always had to have a plan in place in case Cockburn pursued a different avenue for his basketball career. Any coach would be happy to have Cockburn on his team, but Underwood knows that Illini basketball history is affected by this decision.
“We know how former greats here are revered,” he said. “Kofi’s jersey will hang in the rafters here as an All-American.”
The Illini head coach also mentioned that Cockburn should be considered for National Player of the Year this season.
It’s a progressive time for college basketball, with name/image/likeness rules allowing players to make money during their time at school, allowing Cockburn to earn money for his family without leaving for the NBA — something that certainly played a role in his decision to come back to school.
However, Cockburn still has his sights on the pros — and like Ayo Dosunmu a year ago, he has received feedback on where he needs to improve as a player to be a more attractive draft prospect. Now, like Dosunmu in his junior season, Cockburn’s goals are angled toward becoming a better player, but also one who is more NBA-ready.
“[I will] show my IQ level to the NBA guys this year, and get better on the defensive end,” Cockburn said. “There’s a lot, but I’m ready.”
With the Illinois fan base buzzing at the news that King Kofi is back, Cockburn had a message for Illini fans ahead of his third year in Champaign.
“Get ready to lose your mind. I’m telling you right now. Get ready to lose your mind.”