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The hype surrounding the upcoming 2021-22 Illinois men’s basketball season has been building ever since Kofi Cockburn elected to return for a third season in Champaign. The Illini center and his teammates tip off the regular season on Nov. 9 at home against Jackson State.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The scouting report first-year Cincinnati coach Wes Miller had to piece together ahead of Monday’s Hall of Fame Classic showdown with Illinois featured a unique challenge that Jackson State’s Wayne Brent, Arkansas State’s Mike Balado and Marquette’s Shaka Smart didn’t have to deal with in the last two weeks.

A 7-foot, 285-pound challenge. A preseason All-American challenge. A Kofi Cockburn challenge.

Cockburn’s will be back in the Illinois lineup for the 5:30 p.m. Monday tipoff against Cincinnati at T-Mobile Arena in Kansas City with his NCAA-mandated, three-game suspension served. Miller and the Bearcats (4-0) will have an altogether different set of circumstances to face with Cockburn anchoring almost everything Illinois (2-1) wants to do.

“Teams are going to play differently than what they are without him,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “There’s no doubt. He demands attention.”

The attention Cockburn draws comes from the 7-foot center operating as the No. 1 roller in pick-and-roll action last season and as being the most dangerous offensive weapon at the front of the rim in college basketball. Cockburn turned his physical advantage into 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in 2020-21 and All-Big Ten and consensus Second Team All-American honors.

It's a physical advantage Illinois had to do without in the first two weeks of the season. The Illini managed just fine against Jackson State and Arkansas State, winning the pair of home games by 24 and 39 points, respectively. Last Monday’s 67-66 Gavitt Tipoff Games loss at Marquette was another story.

“We lost a game that we shouldn’t have lost, and I don’t think we lose that game if we had him,” Underwood said.

What Cockburn brings to Illinois is tangible. Underwood said his confidence would go up knowing the Kingston, Jamaica, native was on the court. Beyond flirting with a double-double every time he plays, Cockburn has the ability to change the dynamic of games by drawing foul after foul (sometimes the only way to stop him) or by breaking opponents’ will like he did last season as the nation’s leader in dunks.

“I know, with me, it would give me a ton of confidence knowing that big fella is in there and we can throw him the ball,” Underwood said, before acknowledging what can’t happen with his center back on the court. “We can’t not do the things we’ve been doing that have made us successful because we think, ‘Well, Kofi’s back.’ We’ve got to keep taking this to the next level, and that’s one of the things we’ve talked about and have go to watch out for.”

The Illinois coaching staff will also be watching how Cockburn operates early in Monday’s game against Cincinnati. Underwood is sure emotions will be running high given the nature of the game and Cockburn’s long anticipated 2021-22 debut.

“We’ll have to watch conditioning early, and there’s nothing like the adrenaline of a game and the emotions of a game when you haven’t played in them for a while,” Underwood said. “They can take their toll. We’ll watch that early, but I know he’s excited to be out there and we’re excited to have him.”

Cockburn said he intends to treat Monday’s game against Cincinnati like the other 62 he's played the past two seasons for Illinois. That said, it’s clear the Illini big man prefers the opportunity to play rather than what he faced the last three games as a spectator.

"It’s been up and down,” Cockburn said. "Up and down in the sense where my team played really well. We’re the top team defensively. They did some really great things without me, and that gave me a lot of joy and a lot of happiness. On the flip side, I was angry because I wasn’t able to be out there with them. Three games is a long time when you haven't missed a game in two years. There were a lot of mixed emotions, mixed feelings about it.”

Cockburn’s expectations for his season debut will probably be in line with what Miller puts at the top of Cincinnati’s scouting report under “worst case scenario.”

“I’ve been working on my game a lot,” Cockburn said. "I’ve been put in a lot of situations over the past couple days just preparing for Cincinnati. I won’t expect any rust. I expect I’ll go out there and try to dominate as much as can and try to lead the team as much as I can.”

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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