Illinois expecting big things from big man Kofi Cockburn | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Monday / October 21.
  • Illinois expecting big things from big man Kofi Cockburn

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA

    GLEN HEAD, N.Y. — When Kofi Cockburn picked Illinois over schools like UConn, St. John’s, Pittsburgh and Kansas in January, it was seen as a major recruiting coup for head coach Brad Underwood and his staff.

    The 6-foot-11, 290-pound big man from Oak Hill Academy (VA) was ranked the No. 12 center nationally by 247Sports.com and the No. 50 overall prospect by ESPN.com.

    Now that he’s a freshman with the Illini, Underwood is impressed with what he’s seen already.

    “Kofi’s dropped 11-12 pounds, he’s down to 290 since he checked in,” Underwood told me this week during a recruiting stop at Long Island Lutheran High School. “He’s dropped 3 percent body fat down to 8 1/2-9 percent now. You combine 7 foot and a 7-6 1/2 wingspan and you’ve got a guy who’s playing himself into great shape and he’s really a physical specimen.”

    Underwood said Cockburn, who transferred to Oak Hill from New York power Christ the King before his senior season, has a “tremendous personality.”

    Due to visa issues, Cockburn, a native of Jamaica, wasn’t able to go on the team’s trip to Italy this summer, where they went 3-1, but Underwood was impressed with what he saw beforehand.

    “He’s got a very keen sense of what goes on on the basketball court and he knows when to utilize that, when to play hard, when to bring toughness,” Underwood said. “He was great in our 10 days of practice leading up to our trip to Italy. Unfortunately, he ran into some visa issues and couldn’t play but he was outstanding in those 10 days, better than I expected early on for a true freshman to come in and pick up things, understand what we were doing.”

    Cockburn is a monster around the rim with his ability to rebound, dunk and score on layups, but Underwood expects the big man to display his face-up game some as well.

    “I think a little of both,” he said. “We’ll obviously start with what he does best and I mean he’s a load at the rim. But everything we do is based on his ability. He’s a very good 15-foot jump shooter right now. I think he’ll expand his range as he continues to gain confidence and grow and mature.

    “He’s worked awfully hard this summer and I think we’re excited for the season for him.”

    Illinois finished 12-21 last season, 7-13 in the Big Ten, last season but Underwood believes the addition of Cockburn along with sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, junior guard Trent Frazier and 6-9 sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili should help Illinois improve this season. Dosunmu led the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game and was named to the Athlon Sports All-America Third Team. Frazier was second on the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game. And Bezhanishvil averaged 15.7 points over the last 11 games of the season.

    “We were led by two freshmen in scoring and now you add Kofi on top of that,” Underwood said.

    Underwood, who has four 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament appearances in stops at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State, believes he’s turning it around at the Big Ten school.

    “I tell people all the time, Illinois is a special place,” he said. “There’s been a lot of heavy lifting in terms of getting this thing right. We’re the 11th-ranked program in the history of college basketball. Forbes said we’re the ninth most valued program.

    “We’ve got 15,000 every single night we play. We’ve got passionate, great fans. We’ve got a renovated practice facility at $170 million, so we’ve got a lot going on at Illinois that’s really, really positive.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.