Another New York area big joining Illini

Another New York area big joining Illini

CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois frontcout is going to have an even more New York/New Jersey feel come the 2019-20 season. The Illini were already going to boast rising sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili and incoming four-star freshman Kofi Cockburn. They made it three bigs that played their high school basketball in the Tri-state area with a Monday night commitment from Bernard Kouma.

A native of Chad, Kouma will join Illinois from Our Saviour Lutheran (N.Y.). Kouma, like Cockburn, can sign with Illinois starting April 17 when the spring signing period opens and runs through May 15.

“Illinois, they’ve got a good program and they know how to push a player to be the best they can be,” Kouma told The News-Gazette on Monday. “It’s a great opportunity for me.”

The tie that binds all three big men is Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua. The second-year assistant was the lead recruiter for Bezhanishvili in the 2018 class and both Cockburn and know Kouma in 2019.

“Basically, Orlando is a hell of a recruiter,” Our Saviour Lutheran coach Peter Wehye said. “He loved Bernard’s rebounding prowess and ability to set screens and finish around the basket. It was a no brainer when they had to fill a big man role with Kofi.

“I think this is a formidable front line — especially for the Big Ten. Orlando was spot on in bringing in a high level rebounder. That’s what really he was looking for.”

Kouma is a 6-foot-10, 220-pound power forward. While currently unranked by either Rivals or 247Sports, he had varying levels of interest from programs ranging from the Mid-American Conference to Atlantic-10 and high major teams. Wehye said Kouma’s commitment came down to Illinois and Pittsburgh.

Our Saviour Lutheran went 20-13 this season after posting a 32-5 record during Kouma’s junior year. Kouma averaged 14.3 points, 11 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a senior.

“I can rebound, block shots and run the floor,” Kouma said. “I can do that. Working on my jump shot, I think that wold be good.”

Wehye shared similar thoughts about Kouma’s game.

“He can play above the rim, but he’s good with either hand finishing around the basket,” the Our Saviour Lutheran coach said. “Good off the pick-and-roll. He makes his money rebounding that basketball. He’s got great hands. He’s 6-10 and built like a truck. He’s a brute.”

Wehye said Antigua first saw Kouma when he was the head coach at South Florida. The Illini assistant continued to track him when he got the job at Illinois. That included Kouma’s time playing for the New York Lightning on the Nike EYBL circuit along with 2020 Illini recruiting targets Posh Alexander (his teammate last year at Our Saviour Lutheran) and Clifford Omoruyi out of New Jersey power Roselle Catholic.

“They really did their homework with Bernard,” Wehye said of the Illinois coaches.

Wehye praised Illinois as a good fit for Kouma. The Big Ten is where he belonged.

“He’s going into a league in the Big Ten where bigs are still alive,” Wehye said. “I think (the Illini are) moving in the right direction and trying to build a gritty, scrappy team. They’ll play a New York frontcourt. You need toughness, hard-nosed guys and blue collar guys to really win in that league.”