Welcome to “Good Morning, Illini Nation,” your daily dose of college basketball news from Illini beat writer and AP Top 25 voter Scott Richey. He’ll offer up insights every morning on Brad Underwood’s team.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn have started alongside each other in the Illinois frontcourt in each of the first three games of the season — plus the exhibition for good measure. How much Bezhanishvili and Cockburn ultimately play together in a game, though, comes down to multiple variables.
Through three games, though, it looks like the post duo will at least start and finish games. The latter is the most important, of course. You want your best players on the court to close. Bezhanishvili and Cockburn certainly qualify.
Against bigger teams — like Sunday at Arizona — Illinois will probably trot out its 6-foot-9 sophomore forward and 7-foot freshman center together a little more. Against smaller teams? Look for one or the other of Bezhanishvili and Cockburn in significant stretches of game play.
That means freshmen Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Jermaine Hamlin are going to play. Bosmans-Verdonk can play the 4 with either Bezhanishvili or Cockburn at the 5. When neither of Illinois’ starting frontcourt players are available through foul trouble or needing a breather or both, though, it’s been up to Hamlin to fill the gaps.
That’s why Illinois coach Brad Underwood wanted to get both of his freshmen big men on the court in the early part of the season. The only reason Hamlin didn’t play in the season opener against Nicholls State is because he was dealing with an illness.
Experience now — especially with consecutive road games at Grand Canyon and Arizona — can pay off later.
“Those guys have earned a right to play and get on the court,” Underwood said. “They needed to go experience this vibe and what it’s like on the road and the animosity. I’m excited about Jermaine’s growth and how much he’s been able to grow in practice. He wasn’t perfect — nor was Ben — but they got their feet wet, and we keep can growing from there.”