CHAMPAIGN — The upside for the latest Illinois basketball recruit is obvious. Kofi Cockburn stands 7 feet tall and weighs 290 pounds. That’s "block the sun" kind of size.
"He’s a great piece to our puzzle," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said Thursday at the Ubben Basketball Complex. "He’s a very gifted young man.
"It’s a guy who is ready physically to play in the Big Ten and that really excites me."
Cockburn made an even bigger impression on Underwood with his off-the-court skillset.
During his official visit to Illinois in late December, Underwood welcomed the player to his home. While most of the partygoers were downstairs, Cockburn was upstairs talking to Underwood’s wife, Susan, and daughters Katie and Ashley.
"To have that level of comfort in who you are and your identity, that’s important," Underwood said.
Cockburn signed his National Letter of Intent to join the Illini on Tuesday. With the signature safely in hand, Underwood talked publicly about the center for the first time.
The coach sounded like a guy who got to open his Christmas present eight months early. It was exactly what he wanted. A special gift.
"He’s just so unique," Underwood said. "There’s nobody else like him in the country.
Dare to compare
What basketball player resembles Cockburn? Only one comes to mind for Underwood: LSU and NBA great Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal is actually a skosh bigger, checking in at 7-1, 325. That’s blocking the sun and the moon.
"I should probably call Dale Brown at LSU and see how that was coaching Shaq," Underwood said.
Cockburn is not a lumbering giant.
"He can really run," Underwood said. "He’s a really good athlete."
As a freshman at LSU in 1989-90, O’Neal averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds, while playing 28 minutes per game. He hit 57 percent of his shots from the field.
It isn’t reasonable to have the same expectations for Cockburn his first year.
"I don’t think we should lose sight that he’s a freshman and there’s going to be some learning curve as there always is," Underwood said. "No matter how he looks, he’s still a freshman."
Ranked among the top centers in the country, Cockburn had plenty of college options. But he stuck with the Illini.
"I think (assistant) Orlando Antigua did a fantastic job," Underwood said.
"He came in on his visit and he talked a lot about how he loved the family atmosphere, he loved the locker room and the guys in the locker room. Guys like Ayo (Dosunmu) and Trent (Frazier) helped sell that. There was an opportunity for him to come in and really kind of make a mark."
Ready to rumble
Cockburn joins the Illini after finishing his high school career at Oak Hill Academy. There, he was coached by legendary Steve Smith.
"One of the elite programs in the country," Underwood said. "Steve has done a great job developing him and continuing to enhance his skillset. He was blessed that he got to play with very good perimeter players there. He’s played with the best of the best. That experience will pay off for him as he enters our program and has to endure the night in and night out of Big Ten play."
Smith’s guys play hard with great fundamentals.
"Steve demands a lot," Underwood said. "All those things will help him translate here."
Cockburn is scheduled to arrive in C-U in June. He will go to work right away with strength coach Adam Fletcher.
"Conditioning will be a big challenge," Underwood said. "We’ll continue to work on maybe leaning him up. He’s got a great frame and a great structure to start from."
Cockburn will play on a team led by guards Dosunmu and Frazier and big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili.
Good timing for Cockburn, who can bond with his new teammates during a summer trip to Italy.
The team will have 10 practices and a handful of games in Europe.
"Maybe he can expedite the learning curve a little bit because of that trip," Underwood said.
When the regular season starts, Underwood thinks Cockburn will create problems for the rest of the Big Ten. Especially when he’s on the court with Bezhanishvili.
"I’ve said this all along: one of Giorgi’s best attributes we didn’t see this year, and that was his ability to pass," Underwood said. "Kofi is an excellent passer as well. You’ve got some different things you can do on the offensive end with both of those guys."
The latest signing gives Illinois fans a reason to be excited.
They get no argument from Underwood.
"They should be. It’s Illinois basketball," Underwood said. "We should have expectations. We should have excitement. We’ve had a great spring. These guys are all working extremely hard. That locker room persevered through what was a really tough season. The last half of Big Ten play, we were a good basketball team and we got better.
"Now, we should expect more."
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.