CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Lieb doesn’t remember the exact moment he was first pitted against Kofi Cockburn in a one-on-one situation.
The first three days of practicing against the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, though, were memorable.
Lieb and Cockburn both measure an even 7 feet tall. Cockburn, of course, has a 75-pound advantage when it comes to their official listed weights. The strength and physicality edge is firmly in the Illinois sophomore’s corner.
What Lieb does remember, though, is how each day guarding Cockburn became at least a little less daunting. It took a few weeks — maybe even up to a month — the Illini freshman center said Wednesday afternoon, but he could tell he had improved playing against one of the top big men in the Big Ten.
“At this point, I know my limits and how much I can do, but at the same time I’m not going to say there’s something I can’t do in terms of guarding him,” Lieb said. “I’m able to use my length and the strength I have. … The progression, I can definitely notice that.”
Lieb said he’s already learned quite a bit from Cockburn in the few short months they’ve been teammates. It’s an ongoing learning process, too, as Lieb is challenged every single day in practice with that matchup.
It’s a challenge Lieb isn’t shying away from, however.
“Mentality is such a big part of it,” he said. “I’m obviously not physically at that level with him, but if that’s my thought process every day, then I’m really not going to be improving. I think it’s been the opposite for me. Every day I’m learning new things.
“He’s really kind of taken me and all the other freshmen under his wing. He’ll teach me things about how to guard him. He’s so big and knows what defenders need to be able to do to stop someone like him with his skill set.”
Understanding he had to prepare himself mentally at the start of his Illinois career was the first hurdle Lieb had to clear. He realized quickly that basketball at Illinois was going to be significantly different than what he had played so far in high school at Deerfield and even on the AAU circuit with the Illinois Wolves.
“Getting going with that was pretty important,” Lieb said. “If you can’t take care of that, a lot of the other stuff is hard if you don’t have that confidence in practice and games.”
Lieb filled Illinois’ 13th and final scholarship for this upcoming season that is set to start for the eighth-ranked Illini next Wednesday with a home game against North Carolina A&T at State Farm Center.
The 7-foot, 210-pound center received his offer from Illinois on June 23, with assistant coach Chin Coleman his lead recruiter. Two days later he committed, ending a brief breakout recruitment that went from zero high-major offers and only a couple total to multiple high-major programs interested. The Illini ultimately won out over the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Utah, DePaul and more than a half dozen other mid-major programs.
“Illinois certainly had a roster in flux with whether guys were going pro and other guys transferring,” Illinois Wolves director Mike Mullins said. Lieb committed to the Illini and signed before Cockburn or Ayo Dosunmu announced they would bypass the NBA draft, returning to play for Illinois coach Brad Underwood.
“I never think it’s a bad idea to be developing a 7-footer on your basketball team,” Mullins continued. “That’s just me. That’s what Brandon did in our program. We just continually tried to help him get better. … Brandon loves the game and has a chance, given time, to mature and grow physically and improve his basketball skills to be a contributor to the program. Those are all the things Coach Underwood and I talked about, as well as Coach Chin and myself.”
Lieb’s timeline at Illinois won’t be rushed. If Underwood had a depth chart, Cockburn, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and probably Jermaine Hamlin would be ahead of Lieb at center. A redshirt season in 2020-21 was always a consideration since Lieb, before his run of offers in June, was thinking about spending the year at a prep school anyway.
The NCAA’s decision to grant a bonus year of eligibility to every winter sport athlete because of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t really change Lieb’s approach.
“I know it’s a process,” he said. “Putting on weight, strength, that’s obviously going to translate on the court. If I could get a couple game reps — a blowout game or something like that — I think that could be invaluable going forward seeing the level of competition and adjusting to that.
“It’s really kind of the same mindset going forward for me. I’m going to get to that point where I’m going to be a major key factor on this team, but at the same time I’ve got to be ready if my number is called on if that time comes.”