CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn’s decision to return to Illinois for his junior season didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Yes, adding Cockburn back to the roster after his brief venture into the transfer portal turned Illinois back into a likely preseason top-25 team.
A Big Ten title contender even. Should the Illini reach those heights, though, it won’t just be on the back of the 7-foot, 285-pound center.
Illinois fans actually already got a look at what the 2021-22 team might look like.
Save for the Alfonso Plummer-for-Adam Miller and Omar Payne-for-Giorgi Bezhanishvili swaps, coach Brad Underwood will be able to roll out essentially the same rotation that was responsible for three rather important wins at the end of last season.
The common element? No Ayo Dosunmu.
“I think if you look at it from a personnel perspective, Illinois, without Ayo Dosunmu last year, won at Michigan convincingly and won at Wisconsin,” CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein told The News-Gazette. “Their personnel from those games is all the way back with the exception of Adam Miller, who, in essence, you’re trading for Alfonso Plummer.”
Rothstein is rather high on the potential rotation Underwood can put together in 2021-22 with Cockburn back in the fold. It might start with the man in the middle, but the national college basketball analyst is equally as high on sophomore guard Andre Curbelo.
Rothstein said he’d have both Cockburn and Curbelo on his preseason All-American team. That would give Illinois, at least in his opinion, two of the top-15 players in the country heading into the 2021-22 season.
“Brad Underwood has been very open about the fact Andre Curbelo is an alpha,” Rothstein said. “I think we saw more of that, obviously, when Ayo was out of the lineup. I think you’re going to see a player next year in Andre Curbelo who’s going to make a case — probably along with Villanova’s Collin Gillespie, who’s going to be a fifth-year senior — to be the best point guard in college basketball.”
Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy shares an equally high opinion of what Curbelo could bring to Illinois this coming season. Particularly when it comes to running the Illini’s pick-and-roll offense through Cockburn.
“With Andre as the full-time starter, that’s a fantastic scenario for Kofi,” DeCourcy said. “He’ll get the ball in great spots. I think Andre is a tremendous passer and great at opening up space.”
The rest of the Illinois rotation around Cockburn and Curbelo will also be important in any Big Ten or postseason run.
Rothstein called Da’Monte Williams “one of the great glue guys in college basketball” and labeled Trent Frazier as “the best on-ball defender in the Big Ten.”
“People forget, before Ayo Dosunmu came to Illinois, Trent Frazier was a consistent double-figure scorer,” Rothstein said. “I look at him being the third guy, with (Jacob) Grandison doing a lot of the passing and cutting and Da’Monte Williams being the glue guy that would comprise the nucleus of a team.
“I don’t think Jacob Grandison got enough attention for what he did at Illinois, but he’s just a great blend player. He can pass. He can cut. He can rebound. He can make a stop. … That would obviously bring Omar Payne into a backup post role and Plummer into a backup role. I would say that seven-man rotation is capable of matching up and beating anybody in the sport.”