CHAMPAIGN — This weekend has brought plenty reasons to rejoice for Illinois basketball.
The Illini's all-Big Ten guard and reigning conference Freshman of the Year center will both be back next season.
Kofi Cockburn announced on Saturday that he would withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to Illinois for his sophomore season. Cockburn, a 7-foot, 295-pounder, averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman last season to go with 44 blocks.
The move comes less than 24 hours after guard Ayo Dosunmu announced he was returning to Champaign for his junior season with eyes on a national championship. Their returns, combined with a highly regarded recruiting class, brings plenty of optimism to an Illini team that is losing only three major contributors: Andres Feliz and Kipper Nichols, who both graduated, and Alan Griffin, who transferred.
Dosumu got things started Friday night when, in a video exactly 1 minute and 30 seconds in length, he sent shockwaves through the college basketball world.
The video showed Dosunmu, who declared for the NBA Draft in April, working out on an outdoor hoop for roughly 1 minute, 15 seconds before closing with:
"Since a kid, I've been working. My dream is to play in the NBA, but first I need that national championship," Dosunmu said. "Year three."
The response was swift and enthusiastic. Teammates Trent Frazier and Adam Miller chimed in to celebrate, as did assistant coach Stephen Gentry and Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman sent a GIF if actor Robert Redford nodding in approval.
It was a virtual party in Champaign to welcome back Dosunmu, who captivated the fan base by announcing his commitment to Illinois out of Chicago Morgan Park High School on Oct. 19, 2017. Since then, he's been a face of the program, hit game-winning shots, served as a catalyst in reigniting a team that had struggled prior to his arrival, and got the team back to the NCAA Tournament, before it was thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dosunmu was first team All-Big Ten, averaging 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 0.8 steals. He shot 48%, and came through in the clutch in multiple Illini wins and likely would have excelled in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments had the global pandemic not stopped sports. Of course, Dosunmu and Illinois, after a resurgent year, did not get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Dosunmu was considered a second-round pick by most mock drafts and received an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine, though no date for the combine had been announced as the NBA finishes its season inside a bubble in Orlando, Fla. The deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school is Monday.
In a tweet, CBS Sports Insider Jon Rothstein said that Dosunmu's return combined with a return from Cockburn would make Illinois a "consensus Top-10 team to begin next season."
The backcourt is a strength for Illinois with Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, Austin Hutcherson and four-star freshmen Miller and Andre Curbelo.
Cockburn gives the Illini an established player in the paint, and head coach Brad Underwood certainly made it a point to cater the offense to the big man last season while letting him be the anchor of the defense.
In April, Cockburn declared for the NBA Draft after Illinois’ resurgent season came to an abrupt halt because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, but he did not hire an agent. He was largely left out of nearly all of the mock drafts in recent months.
The NBA Draft process looks a lot different this season because of the pandemic. The draft was scheduled to be held on June 26, but the pandemic has postponed that — and the NBA season. The draft lottery is scheduled for Aug. 25 and the draft is scheduled for Oct. 15. College players had until Monday to withdraw their name and return to school.
Cockburn should immediately be considered one of the best big men in the Big Ten and college basketball. He and Luka Garza, who is also weighing his decision to go pro or return to school, will likely be considered pre-season All-Big Ten selections — if not more.
With a year of college basketball under his belt, Cockburn should be prepared for anything he sees during the season after making adjustments last season. There’s plenty to improve on, including cleanly catching some passes and defending bigs who can step out and shoot, but he’s an established player who has the physical size and strength to dominate each night.
In conference play last season, Cockburn averaged 11.7 points — second on the team behind Dosunmu — and 8.2 rebounds.
Illinois will keep continuity and depth in the front court. Towards the end of last season, Underwood brought Giorgi Bezhanishvili off the bench and staggered minutes between Bezhanishvili and Cockburn. That came after an up-and-down attempt to pair the two together on the floor. Bezhanishvili struggled at times after switching to the power forward position.
The combination of Cockburn, Bezhanishvili, Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison gives depth and versatility up front. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Coleman Hawkins and Brandon Lieb give Underwood and Co. intriguing options, though neither has much, if any, college experience under their belt.
Also important, the roster is filled out and accounted for, which is saying something given the timeline in play because of the pandemic.
The coronavirus forced teams across the country to wait substantially longer for players to make the decision of whether to stay in the draft or return to school.
Cockburn and Dosunmu staying around is a big step in roster stability after the transfers of Griffin and Tevian Jones in the offseason. Those transfers, along with the graduation of Nichols and Feliz, could have led to a vastly different looking roster compared to when the season ended.
The recruiting class had mostly been filled out for months with Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins and Illinois added in-state center Brandon Lieb late in the process.
Without a doubt, this is Underwood’s best roster as he enters his fourth year in Champaign.