CHAMPAIGN — Big Ten men’s basketball teams have regularly taken to using multiple defenders on Kofi Cockburn when the Illinois sophomore center gets the ball in the paint.
The results have been hit or miss. Mostly miss.
Cockburn has posted six straight double-doubles and has eight in nine Big Ten games as part of his NCAA-leading 11 total so far this season. The Illini 7-footer is also averaging 19.7 points and 11.2 rebounds in conference play, while shooting 72.7 percent from the field.
Penn State took a different defensive tact Tuesday night at State Farm Center.
The Nittany Lions reserved some of their double teams for Ayo Dosunmu when the Illinois guard got the ball on the perimeter.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. Dosunmu torched Penn State for 30 points in the Illini’s late December win in State College, Pa. The change in scheme, though, didn’t exactly pay off.
Dosunmu turned into equal parts facilitator and scorer Tuesday with 13 points to go along with a game-high five assists in Illinois’ 79-65 victory. Those five assists were part of 18 the Illini distributed on 26 made shots. All in an effort to give up good shots for great shots, according to Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier.
“That’s an incredible number us moving the ball around,” Frazier said, “making sure we keep sharing the ball, keep moving the ball and sacrificing for the next man up.”
Illinois’ ball movement against the Nittany Lions — often making the extra pass and sometimes the extra, extra pass — was about as good as fourth-year coach Brad Underwood said he’d seen in his time in Champaign.
“It’s right up there, no doubt,” Underwood said. “The unselfishness. (Tuesday’s) a night they trap Ayo. Great, he has five assists and probably has another four or five hockey assists.
“That’s what good players do, and that becomes really contagious. When we can have possessions where we don’t over dribble and we can have possessions where the ball moves — and more importantly the players move — that’s fun to see and that’s really good basketball.”
Illinois assisted on 69.2 percent of its made shots Tuesday night. It was the third-best assist-to-field goals made mark of the season after the Northwestern win (70.4 percent thanks to a wild second half) two weeks ago and the North Carolina A&T blowout (70.5 percent) in the season opener.
The Illini are assisting on 57.6 percent of their made shots for the season. While that ranks 66th nationally, it’s notably better than the previous three seasons at 50 percent, 51.7 percent and 51.3 percent, respectively.
Playing an unselfish brand of basketball was one of the topics that came up when the Illinois players and coaches met following last Saturday’s 87-81 home loss to Ohio State.
They emphasized last season’s seven-game winning streak in Big Ten play — the stretch that set the team toward what would have been an NCAA tournament appearance — came from playing that way.
Cockburn called it a “team-bonding moment.”
“I basically feel like I have to be about it,” he continued. “I can’t just talk about it. I try to tell guys every day, ‘Elevate each other, play for each other.’ That’s what it’s all about. Playing for each other, trusting each other to make the shot, make an extra pass. Give up a good shot for a great shot.
“We elevated each other. We had 18 assists in one basketball game. That’s really great. It’s elevating each other, playing for each other, sharing the ball and coming back on defense and playing for the guy beside you.”
Seven different players had at least one assist in Tuesday’s win. Andre Curbelo was right behind Dosunmu with four, Jacob Grandison had three in his first start at Illinois and Frazier and Da’Monte Williams had two apiece.
Even Cockburn got in on the action, with a kick-out assist from a double team for an early Adam Miller three-pointer. Cockburn’s not always perfect finding the open man when he’s got multiple defenders hanging on him, but it’s an area of his game the Illinois coaching staff continues to highlight.
“It’s one of those things we’ve had some hard talks with him about, and we continue to work with it,” Underwood said. “Those will eliminate some of his what I call casual turnovers. He’s got to keep seeing them. It helps when we knew when it was coming and where it was coming from, and Kofi’s then got the vision and the strength to make the right pass.”