The Illinois Fighting Illini appear have a loaded 2022 guard class coming in. But what about the frontcourt? Kofi Cockburn has made his intentions known — he’s foregoing his remaining eligibility and declaring for the NBA Draft, thus he can’t return to Illinois.
There’s now literally and figuratively a massive void in the frontcourt. So...what happens now?
Illinois currently has Coleman Hawkins, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Brandon Lieb from last year’s squad, in addition to Baylor transfer Dain Dainja. One of those players (Hawkins) looks like a budding star, one (BBV) made some positive strides as a reserve, one (Lieb) has only appeared in garbage time, and the other (Dainja) has only been in street clothes.
Many names from TCR’s first transfer list are still looking for new schools. But there’s so much talent still available that it seems impossible that the Illini won’t be able to add a big man, even if it’s an “in case of emergency, please break glass” scenario.
With Omar Payne officially out of the picture (he’s off to Jacksonville), and Kofi turning pro, here are some more available transfer portal targets for Brad Underwood and his staff to consider.
Some of these names are players the Illini are already courting, while others are guys I’d like to see the team pursue that I believe would be good fits. Let’s take a look.
Emoni Bates, Memphis
The 6-foot-9 Bates was a five-star recruit in 2021, the fifth-ranked player overall and top small forward prospect coming out of high school in Ypsilanti, Mich. Bates initially commited to Michigan State before flipping to Memphis and joining Penny Hardaway’s top-rated recruiting class.
Bates averaged 9.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in his only year at Memphis. He missed 15 games due to injury and was overshadowed by fellow five-star frosh Jalen Duren., but Bates is an exciting, tantalizing talent. He has a quick release on his shot, can score from all three levels, and has positional versatility due to his length and fluidity.
More than a dozen schools have already contacted Bates, including Illinois, Michigan, DePaul, Kansas, Oregon, Georgetown & Arkansas.
Manny Bates, North Carolina State
Whaddaya know? Another Bates is one of the most coveted big men in the marketplace. A four-star recruit in 2018, Manny Bates spent four seasons in Raleigh, but redshirted his freshman year due to shoulder surgery and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first minute of the first game of ‘21-22.
During his two healthy seasons Bates showed flashes of dominance, averaging 7.1 ppg on 65% shooting and pulling down 4.8 rpg. But Bates has already proven to be an elite rim protector, registering an astonishing 147 blocked shots in 54 games — fourth-most in NC State program history.
The 6-foot-11 Bates needs to show he can remain healthy, but the redshirt junior is an absolute force on the defensive end and will be an impact add wherever he lands.
Saba Gigiberia, Georgia Tech
This name may sound familiar to you if you’ve really kept up with Illini recruiting. Gigiberia was a target of Brad Underwood’s a few years back, but the 7-foot center opted to play for the Yellow Jackets instead.
Even though he started his college career in Atlanta, Gigiberia certainly has connections to Champaign. Born in the Republic of Georgia — the same home country of former Illini big Giorgi Bezhanishvili — the former four-star recruit played his senior year of high school hoops at Prolific Prep in California, the same program that produced Coleman Hawkins.
Gigiberia played in only 23 games in two seasons with Tech, but showed flashes of his potential this year. In 117 minutes of action (7.8 mpg), Gigiberia logged 38 points (2.5 ppg), 35 rebounds (2.3 rpg), 11 assists, 6 blocks, and 5 steals.
He’s a smart, skilled post player with a 7-4 wingspan who can protect the rim and help spread the floor. Gigiberia may not be an All-Big Ten type, but he would definitely add value to an Illinois frontcourt without many dependable options.
Bryce Hopkins, Kentucky
It’s no denying that Kentucky has an embarrassment of riches — they stack four-and five-star prospects year after year. UK is one of the most decorated programs in college basketball history, so there’s no mystery why it’s an attractive destination for top recruits.
But when you stockpile so much talent it’s inevitable that some of those top recruits will get squeezed out. Bryce Hopkins is one of the latest Kentucky commits looking for a larger role.
A borderline five-star recruit (39th nationally by 247Sports), the Fenwick grad couldn’t crack the Wildcats’ rotation as a freshman, averaging just 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 28 games. But watching Hopkins’ tape, there’s a lot to like. The 6-foot-7 swingman can score from all three levels — though he’s not a consistent three-point threat — is active on the glass, and can play multiple positions.
Illinois was a contender for Hopkins in ‘21, and he’d be an ideal fit for the new look Illini.
Franck Kepnang, Oregon
Franck Kepnang was a top 50 overall prospect in the class of 2021 before reclassifying and enrolling at Oregon in 2020.
A native of Cameroon, Kepnang averaged 4.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 14.5 minutes per game last season. In 52 games with the Ducks overall, Kepnang averaged 12.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per 40 minutes.
Kepnang is a load at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds. He is a strong, intimidating post player with a high motor. At times Kepnang could get too aggressive, though, averaging 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes played. Pairing him with Dain Dainja would give Illinois a physically daunting frontcourt combo.
The Fighting Illini were in the mix for Kepnang before, offering the big man in 2019.
Kenneth Lofton Jr., Louisiana Tech
Given his size and stature (6-foot-7, 275 pounds), it would be easy to dismiss “Junior” Lofton’s abilities. He looks like he should be wearing a helmet and shoulder pads rather than a basketball jersey. But the dude can flat out ball.
Like Kofi, Lofton plays almost exclusively below the rim and is a potent post scorer and finisher. During his two collegiate seasons, Lofton has shot 56.1% from 2-point range and registered 932 points (14.3 ppg) and 588 rebounds (9.0 rpg).
The Port Arthur, Tx., native was voted 2020-21 Conference USA Rookie of the Year, and followed that with a First Team All-Conference nod this season. He was also named Louisiana Major College Player of the Year. 247Sports lists Lofton as the fifth-best available player in the portal.
He’s a bit undersized (at least in terms of height) for his position, but so were guys like Charles Barkley, Dennis Rodman, and Zion Williamson. And Lofton possesses characteristics of all three. He’s been linked to Houston, Oklahoma & Texas, but it would be fun to see Lofton in orange and blue.
Ben Vander Plas, Ohio
A 6-foot-8, 235-pound power forward, Vander Plas started all 35 games for Ohio last season, averaging 14.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.8 steals while shooting 45.7% from the field and 33.8% from deep. MAC coaches named Vander Plas to the All-Conference First Team.
In Nov. 2020, Vander Plas tallied 20 points, five rebounds, and four steals, nearly helping the Bobcats upset the Fighting Illini at State Farm Center.
Vander Plas is one of the more well-rounded players on this list. He can score from all areas of the court, he rebounds and passes well, eats up minutes, and has terrific hands defensively — Vander Plas posted a 3.5% steal rate in 2021-22, good for second in the MAC.
It’s impossible to “replace” a player like Kofi Cockburn. But the Fighting Illini have been cooking on the recruiting trail of late, and there’s still plenty of talent available to help Illinois fortify its frontcourt.