CHAMPAIGN — The season-to-season comparison for what Illinois men’s basketball is doing defensively now compared to a year ago is stark.
Illini coach Brad Underwood completely altered his defensive scheme.
The offensive changes have been more subtle. Namely, they’ve involved making the most from having a physically dominant 7-foot, 290-pound center to work around in freshman Kofi Cockburn.
“Everything we do, we try to get the ball as close as we can to the rim and try to play inside-out,” Underwood said. “We have a saying, ‘Love the rim like the three.’”
Illinois (16-7, 8-4 Big Ten) hasn’t loved the rim enough lately. It’s a change Underwood would like to see for his 22nd-ranked Illini heading into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. rematch with Michigan State (16-8, 8-5). The Spartans dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday, becoming the first preseason No. 1 team to do so since 1968.
Not establishing Cockburn in the post has played a role in Illinois’ struggles in its losses to Iowa and Maryland.
It’s not an issue confined to just those two games, however. Underwood made a point of singling out the Illini’s first three possessions in their 76-56 loss last month at Michigan State. Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Da’Monte Williams — combined 26.6 percent three-point shooters — attempted and missed three straight shots from beyond the arc.
“We’ve got to have an understanding of where we’re trying to go and what we’re trying to do,” Underwood. “When you’re shooting them quick with 16 or 17 on the clock, that’s not doing a very good job of emphasizing trying to get the ball where we need it.”
Where Illinois needs the ball — or at least wants to get it on a fairly regular basis — is in Cockburn’s hands near the basket. Struggling to do so has produced arguably Cockburn’s worst two-game stretch of his still young career. The Kingston, Jamaica, native has just 15 points and 10 rebounds in the Illini’s last two games, which he’s topped in a single game three times previously this season.
Part of Cockburn’s struggles are tied to foul trouble. Part to his opponents considering he faced Maryland’s Jalen Smith, Iowa’s Luka Garza, Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu and Michigan’s Jon Teske the last four games.
“I try to learn something from each game,” Cockburn said. “I watch the games over and over again. It’s just about coming back in the gym and working on your craft. Making sure you’re putting up extra shots, putting in extra work. That’s going to pay off because when you get out there, you’re more confident.”
Cockburn has earned his teammates’ trust for what he’s done on the court this season. Even with some struggles of late, Cockburn is still putting up 13.8 points and a team-high nine rebounds per game.
“I feel like he’s the best big in the country with what he does and what he’s capable of,” Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “As a freshman, as a guy who’s been playing basketball for 4-5 years, he’s the best big in the country. Any big he goes up against, I always tell him, ‘You’re the best big on the court.’ He goes up there and shows it. He’s getting better and better each and every day.”
Cockburn still has room for improvement. Defensively, he’s had to adapt on the fly to guard players like Smith and Garza, who attempted a combined 14 three-pointers in Illinois’ last two games. His offensive game is still developing beyond just brute force, and being deliberate in his motions is something Cockburn said Illini assistant coach Orlando Antigua has worked with him on to improve his handles.
“Sometimes I get rushed and think, ‘I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go,’” Cockburn said about his occasional struggles holding on to the ball in the post. “Sometimes it’s just about slowing down, making sure that you catch the ball first and then making your move.”
Underwood sees Cockburn having untapped potential. Makes sense considering Cockburn didn’t start playing organized basketball until he came to the U.S. for his freshman year of high school in New York.
“He’s untapped in terms of what he can continue to improve on,” Underwood said. “He’s pretty raw when it comes to have a specific go-to move. He shoots hundreds of jump hooks every single day with Orlando — right hand, left hand.
“He’s getting better. He’s a sponge. He’s dying to learn. It’s great to see what he does in practice.”