PHOENIX — Kofi Cockburn presents a challenge for any team Illinois faces. There are simply not that many 7-foot, 286-pound centers in college basketball anymore. It could be a real advantage — if the Illini can exploit it.
Scott Williams, who is now the TV analyst for Grand Canyon basketball, played 15 years in the NBA when centers of Cockburn’s size were more the norm. Williams himself is 6-10.
“There’s not too many guys that look like him in the pros,” Williams said of Cockburn. “Teams don’t wait for big guys to come down and set it up and throw it inside and let them make two or three dribbles. The game’s too fast for that now. You have to work on being able to get speed down the floor and maybe get some stuff in transition.
“He’s going to have to get on the glass — especially the offensive glass. And he’s going to have to be able to pick-and-roll. The NBA all they use is these guys for drag screens and side screens in pick-and-roll to the basket to try and get an advantage against a guard.”
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Williams won three NBA titles playing for the Chicago Bulls in their first three-peat. His pro career eventually brought him to the Phoenix Suns in the early 2000s, when he met now Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle.
And, yes, Williams does bring up the 1993 NBA Finals — a six-game series win for the Bulls against the Suns — with Majerle.
“I came to the Suns in 2002, and he was doing broadcasting for the team,” Williams said. “We became friends and a partner in a restaurant together. I get on him quite a bit. He’s got pictures of all the guys he’s friendly with up on a wall in the restaurant. Guess where he put my picture? The men’s room! He gets me back, so I throw that ’93 championship ring in his face as much as I can.”
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Illinois left for Arizona on Wednesday afternoon following one last practice at Ubben Basketball Complex. Thursday’s practice was at Arizona State’s facility with the Sun Devils out of town facing Colorado — in Shanghai.
Preparation for Sunday’s game against No. 21 Arizona will happen in Tucson, Ariz. The Illini will practice Saturday at the Wildcats’ facility.
“It’s a quick prep,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You get a little more game prep on a one-day turn. It will be more about Arizona on Saturday than anything that we’ll do. We’ll use our time basically on them and preparing our game plan for them instead of working on some of the basic things we need to work on.”
Illinois’ weekend in the desert — at least timing- and schedule-wise — mirrors the NCAA tournament. Play one day, prep one day and play again. Whether it’s that schedule or a back-to-back like a team might face in a conference tournament, Underwood said it’s good to get those type of experiences in the nonconference portion of the schedule.
“You try to challenge your team to understand what those challenges are — how you mentally have to prepare,” Underwood said. “You try to do those things in November so when you see them in March, late in the year, you’re accustomed to those quick turns. We’re going to experience something for the first time and hopefully in March or April it’s something that we can say, ‘Hey, we’ve handled that and remember how.’”
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Nicholls State hassled Illinois defensively in Tuesday’s season opener. The Colonels were “on the line, up the line” with their on-ball coverage. It was the aggressive, denial-heavy scheme that Underwood brought to Champaign.
Illinois didn’t reciprocate with as suffocating of a defense. Underwood has tweaked his system this season. Playing more zone is part of that, but he’s also backed the Illini off from the scheme that ranked fourth nationally in defensive turnover percentage in 2017-18 and 24th last season but also left them susceptible to back-door cuts and teams that could successfully attack the middle of their defense.
“I think we’ve got length and we’ve got guys that we feel can funnel guys into Kofi (Cockburn) and into our bigs,” Underwood said. “He impacts a lot of balls. We’re trying not to get beat as much off the ball as we have in the past and still stay in a pretty aggressive mode.”
Redshirt senior forward Kipper Nichols has seen the benefit of having Cockburn anchor the Illinois defense.
“He can do a few things down there — a few special things,” Nichols said. “Athletically he’s really gifted. All across the board we’ve got guys with great wingspans and great athletic ability. I think it will help a lot defensively.”
The change in defense could also help Illinois avoid foul trouble. The more aggressive version of Underwood’s defense the past two seasons saw the Illini send their opponents to the free throw line with some regularity.
“This year we’re playing more of a flat triangle defensively,” sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “Not that much aggressiveness in not allowing them to catch the ball. We’re keeping them out the middle and playing good defense. It definitely limits fouls.”
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Outside expectations for this year’s team soared heading into the season. This is the team, fans and national pundits alike, that can get back to the NCAA tournament after missing out in each of the past six seasons.
Nichols would respectfully argue — and then did so — that expectations haven’t changed inside the program.
“Our expectation is to be the best we can be every day,” the Cleveland native said. “Obviously, the results haven’t shown it, but we want to win championships every year. We come in here with that mindset.
“I think we’re ready. We’ve been through the process. I think we’re ready to take that next step as far as maturity and really coming together.”
Making the NCAA tournament is part of both of those sets of expectations.
“I think it would mean a great deal,” Nichols said about what that would do for the fan base. “It would mean an even greater deal to us. We definitely want to give the fans and the community what they’ve been waiting for and we’ve been waiting for. Bring back that ‘05, that Flyin’ Illini, feel to Champaign.”
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Andres Feliz started his third straight game Friday at Grand Canyon, counting Illinois’ exhibition against Lewis. That moves the senior guard to within one start of matching the number he got last season. Moving Feliz to the starting lineup, though, has changed the dynamic of the Illini bench.
“I think everybody’s got to earn their roles and find out what their roles are,” Underwood said. “I think the one thing I always felt comfortable last year with Dre coming off the bench was that stabilizing force knowing that there wasn’t going to be any slippage. The right plays were going to be made. How that projects here we’ll see moving forward. Nothing’s definitive yet in terms of what we’re trying to do. We’re still looking and exploring.”
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One of those players still trying to figure out their role in the Illinois rotation is freshman forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. That he didn’t come off restricted minutes until four practices before the exhibition game against Lewis as he worked his way back from the leg injury he suffered this summer meant the Lommel, Belgium, native was just simply behind everyone else.
That’s why sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili had to do some directing on the court against Nicholls State — at one point literally moving Bosmans-Verdonk to the right spot on one play.
“That’s leadership from Giorgi,” Underwood said. “For Ben, it’s keeping the game simple. It will probably be for a little bit. It will probably be shorter stints so that he is comfortable with what’s going on and he doesn’t get fatigued. He’s still playing himself back into what we call basketball shape.”
This is also Bosmans-Verdonk’s first season playing basketball in the United States. That was evident in the exhibition game when he was whistled for a lane violation on a call that’s different between FIBA and NCAA rules.
“I definitely had to learn that and many other things at first last year,” Bezhanishvili said, given he had to make the same adjustments when he came to the United States for high school. “I think you guys saw that last year. We kind of help him out. I talk to him a lot about things like that. Through experience, he definitely will learn stuff like that.”
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Underwood hasn’t changed his stance on Da’Monte Williams. He values what the junior guard does in terms of defense, passing and making hustle plays. That said, the Illini coach still wants Williams to have a more impactful role offensively.
“Da’Monte’s a guy, again, we’ve got to have him rebound the basketball and play with an aggression on the offensive end,” Underwood said. “He does it defensively, but we need that aggression offensively.”