Kofi Cockburn Missouri

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn reacts after a dunk during Saturday night’s Braggin’ Rights game at Missouri. Cockburn and the 13th-ranked Illini return to the court Tuesday night to host Minnesota in their Big Ten opener as Illinois tries to avoid a second consecutive loss.

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CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn still hasn’t received an explanation for the Flagrant 1 foul called against him late during Saturday night’s Braggin’ Rights game at Missouri.

The 7-foot, 285-pound Illinois center established good positioning on Missouri forward Mitchell Smith, with the 6-10, 221-pound Smith having a firm grip on Cockburn’s right arm.

A ball reversal from Ayo Dosunmu on the left wing to Andre Curbelo at the top of the key helped make Cockburn’s post up in the left side of the lane with Smith on his back even more advantageous.

Smith hit the floor as Curbelo hit Cockburn with the entry pass — video of which doesn’t show Cockburn making any type of malicious move — and the Illini big man powered home a two-handed dunk. The basket was good, cutting Missouri’s lead to two with 40 seconds to play, but a video review had the officials slapping Cockburn with the Flagrant 1.

Dru Smith made one of the two ensuing free throws to give Missouri an 81-78 lead, and that was it. Another Braggin’ Rights win for the Tigers.

“I’m not a dirty player,” Cockburn said Monday afternoon. “The referee thought I hit him in the face. It was definitely not intentionally. I felt like I was in great post position and kept my hands up. The referees made the call. I have to live with it.”

So does Brad Underwood. Two of the three officials for Saturday’s game — Terry Wymer and Terry Oglesby — used to be Big Ten officials but now work exclusively in the SEC. Sending the play to the Big Ten office, then, wouldn’t do the Illinois coach any good.

Not that Underwood wasn’t tempted by some of the calls in the Braggin’ Rights game.

“There were more than a few that raised an eyebrow, so to speak,” he said.

The Flagrant 1 against Cockburn is part and parcel with a major frustration for Underwood as Big Ten play starts for No. 13 Illinois (4-2) with a 6 p.m. Tuesday tip at State Farm Center against Minnesota (6-0).

“I’m really frustrated with the way Kofi is being officiated,” Underwood said Monday. “It’s hard because he’s (nearly) 300 pounds. He gets hit. He gets smacked. There’s multiple occasions where they’re grabbing his arm and he’s still finishing. There’s two occasions he’s in the air for alley-oops and he gets pushed, but because he doesn’t flail out of bounds because he’s not 185 pounds he doesn’t get those calls.”

Cockburn tries not to dwell on how he’s being officiated. The sophomore center is just as frustrated as Underwood, but he knows letting those frustrations boil over on the court won’t do him any good.

“You’re getting hit and getting fouled, and you’ve still got to play on,” Cockburn said. “I can’t really worry about that. I’ve got to continue to play my game. At the end of the day, if I get fouled and the referees don’t call it, the ball is still going in the opposite direction and I still have to get back and play defense.”

Cockburn admits he let his frustrations get the better of him in the Braggin’ Rights game. He was one of six Illini that finished with four fouls and knows he overreacted to a call or two.

“The game of basketball has 10 players and only three referees,” Cockburn said. “They’re going to make mistakes. I’ve got to accept it and keep playing.”

That self awareness is part of Cockburn’s growth in his second season of college basketball. The Kingston, Jamaica, native feels like he’s matured as a player. It helps him keep his frustrations on the court from becoming an issue and has him more prepared for the start of Big Ten play.

“I’ve played against all these teams before,” Cockburn said. “I know what they’ve got and what they come with, and I know what I’m capable of doing and I know what my team is capable of doing.

“I’m confident going out there. I won’t get rattled as much as I did last year. I won’t be as nervous as I was at the start of games. It’s just about being confident now knowing I’m a veteran. I should dominate.”

Cockburn is averaging 14 points and 8.8 rebounds so far this season. He’s been efficient, too, shooting a career-high 64.6 percent from the field.

Underwood wants more. Always.

“My expectation level is so high for Kofi he has a hard time meeting it,” the Illinois coach said. “He had an inconspicuous 19 (points) the other night and went against one of the top defensive centers in the country in (Jeremiah) Tilmon. If he makes a few free throws the other night, we’re talking about what an elite performance he had. I keep wanting more and more and keep pushing him. I told him that the other day in practice. That’s how I coach. He’s playing great. He’s going to have big nights.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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