CHAMPAIGN — The last three months have been a veritable roller coaster for the Illinois basketball program. But Friday proved a smooth finish to the at times bumpy ride.
Kofi Cockburn is coming back.
"Champaign became my home, and Illinois basketball became my family," Cockburn said in his announcement video. "I’ll never forget what these last two years have meant to me as a person and as a player. But it’s time to move forward. It’s time to put the past in the past and take the next step. It’s time to bring a national championship back to Champaign."
The Illinois junior announced his return on social media Friday evening after going through both the NBA pre-draft process and the transfer portal. A top three that also included Kentucky and Florida State was narrowed to one.
“It instantly makes Illinois a top three team in the Big Ten and a top 10 team nationally,” CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein told The News-Gazette. “The expectation is to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten and a top team nationally. That gives Illinois fans, in my opinion, another season that has a chance at a run to a potential Final Four.”
It’s a significant bit of news for Illinois following what had been mostly roster and coaching staff turnover this offseason. Adam Miller transferred to LSU. The entire group of assistant coaches left, too, with Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman at Kentucky and Stephen Gentry back at Gonzaga.
Cockburn’s decision to return likely puts a cap on that somewhat tumultuous offseason. Illinois coach Brad Underwood rebuilt his staff with Chester Frazier, Geoff Alexander and Tim Anderson and bolstered his roster with Utah transfer guard Alfonso Plummer and Florida transfer forward Omar Payne.
Cockburn was the final piece — perhaps — to the puzzle. Certainly the biggest in terms of potential impact for the 2021-22 season. Underwood still has one open scholarship to work with, but can now be much more selective with how he uses it.
One player can alter a program that much. Particularly when he’s a returning consensus Second Team All-American that proved to be one of the most dominant bigs in college basketball last season.
Cockburn withdrew from the draft after feedback showed it might not be his year. At least in the NBA. It could well be the 7-foot, 285-pound center’s year in college basketball.