As with the rest of the roster, Illinois came into this offseason with total uncertainty at the center position, losing all three of their bigs that saw time last season.
All-American and Illini legend Kofi Cockburn moved on to pursue his pro aspirations while Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Omar Payne hit the transfer portal and landed at South Carolina and Jacksonville respectively.
While the latter two fit as rotation pieces backing up Cockburn, it will be no small task to replace the 7-foot, 300 pound force that the Illini have had manning the middle the last three seasons.
Underwood and company knew the days of a post-Cockburn Illini were coming and has done well bringing in length and versatility across all positions to help bridge that size gap across the board and bringing in different skill sets to usher in a new play style. Let’s look at who the Illini will have in the post this season.
One of the few returning players from last season with any meaningful minutes, Hawkins should have a strong opportunity to make an impact in five-out offensive sets, maximizing the inside-outside versatility he’s shown in spurts over the past two seasons. Consistency has been an issue for Hawkins in the past offensively, as he had some brilliant games followed up by forgettable ones.
The 6-foot-10 big man should have more open looks from the perimeter and opportunities to score with the offensive production voided with Cockburn’s absence. His handles and scoring ability should be on full display this season, complementing the versatile athletes and skillsets that surround him opening the floor.
Beyond his obvious offensive potential, Hawkins stands out as a prime candidate for a breakout year defensively as well. The first round tournament game last season against Chattanooga was evidence of that with his impacting the final shot of the game to secure the victory for the Illini.
His length and quickness for his size, along with more opportunities to showcase his abilities, should make him a trendy potential pick for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Still an unknown at the college level, Underwood brought Dainja in from Baylor midseason last year, after sitting out the year and limited by injury.
Given the injury history and past conditioning concerns, the extended offseason work with strength coach Adam Fletcher has made a big difference helping him prepare for an expanded role and the physical nature of the Big Ten. He’s lost a reported 20 pounds since joining the Illini and dramatically transformed his diet and workout habits with Fletcher’s help, impressing the coaching staff with his work ethic and dedication to his craft since his arrival.
Dainja is the clear heir apparent to Cockburn’s previous role as the low-post scoring threat and interior defensive presence. However, his style of play is much different from Cockburn, bringing more guard-like skills with better handles, shooting, and passing. He has comfort with both back to the basket offense as well as facing up shooting and driving from the perimeter. His skillset may remind Illini fans of recent Purdue great Trevion Williams, who gave the Illini fits as a secondary facilitator and dynamic low post threat.
With rumors that Kofi Cockburn’s departure looking more & more likely, former 4⭐️ recruit & top 100 player Dain Dainja (6’9, 260 lbs) has been putting in the work! Big names should be hitting the portal soon, as well. Don’t panic if Kofi chases his dream & goes pro. Many options! pic.twitter.com/r7qNy6I6Pc— Collin (@Illini_Collin) April 17, 2022
If Dainja can play a similar role for this new look Illini team, there will be a great deal to be excited about for Illini faithful.
Playing sparingly over the last two seasons sitting behind Verdonk, Payne, Cockburn, and Hawkins, the 7-foot-2 big man has the potential to make an impact with his length on the defensive end.
Lieb’s thin frame has made it hard for him to see the floor in Big Ten play, as he hasn’t had the athleticism, strength, or endurance to handle the elite big men in the conference.
While there has been an exodus of big men from the Illini program this offseason, it’s unlikely that Lieb’s role will expand for this year’s Illini. He will, however, serve as a nice depth piece to backup the front line of Hawkins and Dainja.
This season’s Illini are going to play differently without the generational impact of Kofi Cockburn down low. The combined skillset of Hawkins and Dainja brings great feel for the game with better ball handling, shooting, defensive versatility, and low post foot work that should help the Illini to continue their effective attack from the post while opening up driving lanes and shooting opportunities for others.
Underwood’s concerted effort to open up the floor and play faster is evident in every position group, and it should set the Illini up for continued success in conference play and hopefully deep into the Big Dance.