CHAMPAIGN — The Big Man on Campus is, quite possibly, the biggest man on campus.
It’s hard to pinpoint a bigger human being than 7-foot, 285-pound Kofi Cockburn on the sprawling University of Illinois campus. If there is one, sightings have been few and far between among the student body that tops 56,000 this school year.
Nearly all eyes in Champaign-Urbana will hone in on what Cockburn will do on the court this upcoming winter. Along with Illinois fans spread across the state, country and the world. The 22-year-old center and preseason Big Ten Player of the Year has some of the greatest expectations heaped upon an Illini men’s basketball player in, well, maybe ever?
Yes, Dee Brown popping his jersey is still fresh in many people’s minds. Hard to believe the one-man fastbreak hasn’t worn an Illini uniform in more than 15 years.
But Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head and the rest of that magnificent 2004-05 team didn’t have social media to deal with.
Facebook was in its infancy stages and a hot spot only for college campuses at that point in history. Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat were far-fetched concepts. Yes, Deon Thomas finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,129 points in 1994 (seriously, how has it been that long?).
But NCAA infractions hindered the start of Thomas’ college career and Illinois never advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament with No. 25 in the lineup for Lou Henson’s teams.
Yes, Ayo Dosunmu cemented his spot among some of the all-time best players to suit up for the Illini and is arguably the player Illinois fans would want to have the ball in his hands with the clock heading toward zero. The rookie with the Chicago Bulls is proving that skill translates to the NBA, too, with flashes of that attribute in preseason games.
Cockburn hasn’t been shy about wanting to embrace the lofty expectations he’ll try to live up to when the opening tip against Jackson State is in the air on Nov. 9 in Champaign. He wants to leave as the best player to ever go through the Illinois program.
He likely won’t top Thomas’ scoring record unless he stays for two more seasons (he does have an extra year of eligibility afforded all college athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic). Cockburn is 39 points shy of 1,000, but if he has the type of season he envisions this winter, the NBA will come calling next summer. James Augustine’s career rebounding record of 1,023 is likely safe (Cockburn has 565) and so is Nnanna Egwu’s career blocked shots record of 201 (Cockburn has 84).
Does Cockburn have holes to improve in his game? Absolutely. Just like every other college basketball player.
Maybe he steps out beyond the three-point line more this season, but don’t bet on it. Cockburn is 0 for 1, with his lone attempt happening against Michigan on Dec. 11, 2019. A decent touch even from just the elbow or free-throw line is a welcome sight.
Maybe he racks up more assists after only compiling five last season. That would be exceedingly helpful for a team full of shooters, like Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Da’Monte Williams and others, when double teams inevitably come Cockburn’s way. Making the extra pass and showing poise around the basket instead of trying to bull his way through a defender, no matter how tempting it is, might raise the eyebrows of NBA scouts even more.
Improving his free-throw shooting — he’s made 60.6 percent of his 381 career attempts — is also near the top of the to-do list item on enhancements to Cockburn’s game.
But even with all these points made about his on-court production, look at all the efforts and strides Cockburn has made away from the court.
Remember when he visited the UI campus for his official visit? It was a cold, dreary late December weekend in 2018. He went to State Farm Center and watched the Illini lose in person to ... Florida Atlantic. Still, he committed to the Illini.
A week later in fact, with the best news on that first Sunday in January 2019 for many Illinois fans when Cockburn revealed he was coming to Illinois. Forget what happened that day? Well, Illinois lost to Northwestern (coincidentally, the Illini are 6-0 against the Wildcats since) and the Bears double-doinked themselves out of the NFL playoffs.
So before he was producing highlight-reel dunks, Cockburn had a way to make Illini fans, who are prone to questioning their fanhood at times, feel good about their favorite school.
They had reason to cheer his name each of the last two summers, too, first in August 2020 when he announced he would return for his sophomore season and then against this past July when he bypassed transferring to either Florida State or Kentucky.
Then, there’s his off-court persona. A bit quiet at first with any interviews he conducted early on at Illinois, Cockburn has allowed his full personality to be on display these past three seasons. He is a pro at answering questions, just like his former teammate Dosunmu, and will have to answer plenty in the coming weeks and months, just like he did last week at Big Ten Media Days. Needless to say, it’s unlikely he’ll embarrass Illinois fans when he gets behind a microphone.
And, in this day and age where every cell phone is a camera, Cockburn never seems to turn down any request for young fans who are wanting a quick photo (like he did with 10-year-old Dayne White, The News-Gazette’s junior reporter at this past Saturday’s Illinois football game). He understands the legacy he’s building at Illinois, and public relations is part of the job.
Cockburn earned a huge boost in this department the night of Sept. 3, showing up on the sidelines at Hicks Field in Tolono for a high school football game between rivals Unity and St. Joseph-Ogden.
SJ-O senior defensive lineman Austin Cotter had just lost his dad, local sportswriter Jim Cotter, a few days prior, but Cockburn and teammate Coleman Hawkins found themselves at the game to offer support for the younger Cotter. What college student spends part of their Friday night making sure someone besides themselves feels good?
Easy answer: The Big Man on Campus.