CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn pushed himself through the first three games of the season.
No plays off.
When he’s on the court, he’s all in.
It’s something Cockburn admits he struggled with at times during his high school career. It’s also something he realizes can’t fly at this level.
The 7-foot freshman center said he did pretty well holding himself to that standard during Illinois’ 2-1 opening week, but there were a couple times he faltered.
Simply room for improvement after a stretch of three games that saw Cockburn post double-doubles in the first two, average 14 points and 10.7 rebounds total and earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Cutting down on those lost possessions starts anew with Monday’s 7 p.m. nonconference game against Hawaii (3-1) at State Farm Center.
“Just staying active,” Cockburn said is his goal. “Not taking any plays off. Now I’ve got to come in and work on it every day and making sure that I’m always in tune and I’m always aware of everything going on around me.”
A few lost possessions here and there from a freshman doesn’t surprise Illinois coach Brad Underwood. It’s almost expected.
“Playing hard is something you don’t have to do all the time in high school,” Underwood said. “You can get away with taking possessions off. You can get away with turnovers in high school because you can count on the other team to turn the ball over in most cases.”
Underwood has also seen the work Cockburn has put in since arriving on campus in June to avoid some of those freshman pitfalls. Managing Cockburn’s minutes — even as he’s played the fourth most per game on the team so far — is one way for Underwood to help Cockburn limit those empty possessions.
“Finding that consistency is something he’s worked awfully hard at,” Underwood said. “I’ve got to do a better job, probably, of subbing him out when we start to see that fatigue. Yet, he’s shown he’s in great shape. That he can play longer periods of time than even I thought early.
“When he’s in the game, he’s quite an impactful force. There’s a huge upside yet with Kofi that he hasn’t even touched. That’s what we’re striving to get at.”
Cockburn said he did a “fair job” of making sure he was playing at 100 percent effort every minute he was on the court in Illinois’ first three games. His teammates serve as a reminder to do so.
“I just think about my guys,” he said. “I think about how much they need me. I just go out there every day and try to make sure I make their life easier and try to get the ‘W.’”
Cockburn said the first week of the season and Illinois’ first three games were what he expected. No surprises, and he’s comfortable in his role at both ends of the court.
“I trust in my work,” Cockburn said. “I trust that my work is going to pay off. … I have a wonderful team surrounding me. They do their job all the time, and I try to do my best. If we do our job, everything is going to flow right and everything is going to be OK.”
The next step in Cockburn’s search for consistent play and effort is two-fold, in Underwood’s opinion.
He wants his freshman big man to continue to grow in reading defenses and knowing where his opportunities on the offensive end will come.
The Illini coach would also like to see Cockburn put his 7-foot, 285-pound frame to more productive use on the defensive end.
“You can talk about defensively challenging at the rim,” Underwood said. “We’ve seen him have some blocks — spectacular blocks — and collisions at the rim. Those are things that he can impact on every play. We’re seeing that probably not enough. Those are the things he’ll do to impact the game.”
Cockburn has four blocks through the first three games. That total won’t be completely indicative of his defensive presence.
Forcing opponents to alter their shots to contend with his massive size in the paint is also helpful.
“I try to work on it as much as I can,” Cockburn said about his defense. “My coaches, they push me every single day to try and be a better rim protector. My guys, I have to look out for them at all times. That boosts my drive to be a better rim protector.”
Cockburn understanding his physicality and putting it to use is an aspect the Illinois coaches stressed this past week. For the rest of the team, too.
“Just making sure we play physical at all times,” Cockburn said was the coaches’ directive. “We’re a big, physical team, and we need to use our size and take advantage of our opponents — make them feel our presence at all times.”