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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kofi Cockburn made up for lost time quickly Monday night in the Hall of Fame Classic.

Illinois’ 7-foot, 285-pound preseason All-American center spent the previous three games on the bench serving his NCAA-mandated suspension. Cockburn was demonstrative in demanding the ball on the first possession of the game. While Cincinnati was able to poke it away for a turnover, Cockburn caught fire early in the first half.

“Man, Kofi Cockburn is a tough cover,” Cincinnati coach Wes Miller said. “He’s one of the best bigs in America, and he had some great moments and had a night.”

Cockburn was outscoring Cincinnati 12-8 by himself as No. 14 Illinois built its early 23-8 lead through the first eight minutes of Monday’s game. Then the Bearcats adjusted. They kept throwing big after big at Cockburn, knowing stopping him completely would be difficult but they could make his life a little tougher.

Cockburn finished with 18 points and seven rebounds Monday. Cincinnati’s defensive attention ultimately paid off, as the Bearcats slowed down the Illini junior center in their 71-51 upset victory.

“He’s a load, and he’s difficult,” Miller said. “I thought three of our big guys that we threw at him did a great job of giving him different looks and making it difficult. We knew he’d have some moments, but I thought we wore him down over the course of the game.”

It wasn’t so much an in-game change in defensive plan for Cincinnati that managed to keep Cockburn from more in his 2021-22 season debut.

Rather, it was delivering what Miller wanted in the first place.

“We did adjust our basic principles of how we guard the post for this game,” Miller said. “I just don’t know if we executed that early in the game. We didn’t want him to get deep catches, we didn’t want to give him catches with angles and we wanted to help more from the perimeter. I thought (Abdul Ado, Ody Oguama and Hayden Koval) just did an incredible job of making it difficult and making it miserable. He still has a great night, but I thought we made it more difficult after the first couple minutes.”

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What Cincinnati pulled off Monday night on a neutral court didn’t surprise Illinois coach Brad Underwood. He knew the Bearcats had plenty of size to throw at Cockburn. That, statistically, Miller’s crew lined up with his own team in terms of defense and rebounding.

Underwood also knew Cincinnati had talented depth.

Miller’s rotation went 10-deep Monday, and he said he felt it would be important to be able to play five guys in the frontcourt and multiple point guards — one in, one out with Mika Adams-Woods and Mike Saunders Jr. or both of them together at times. Saunders came off the bench to lead the Bearcats with a game-high 20 points.

“It’s something we have to continue to embrace,” Miller said. “It’s not easy. We’ve got guys who could play 25-30 minutes at a lot of other programs, and they’re going to have to sacrifice some of that this year for our team to have more success. If we all continue to buy into that, we can have a lot of fun and everybody can gain from that.”

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Underwood went to his bench more — and earlier — Monday than he had in Illinois’ previous three games. His reason was different, though, from Miller’s.

“I was trying to score,” Underwood said about pulling his starters in the second half. “I was trying to find somebody who would execute a play and actually try to fight on the defensive end. I left Da’Monte (Williams) in for a long time, because he was the only one getting a rebound.

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Illinois got close to full strength Monday, but still didn’t have all of its players available for a fourth straight game. Cockburn’s return and Austin Hutcherson’s debut for the Illini after two-plus seasons coincided with freshman guard Luke Goode being held out of the game with back spasms. Goode dressed for the game, but he was walking gingerly and regularly holding his back.

“It’s unsettling as a coach when you don’t have all your guys, and you want to start identifying roles,” Underwood said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s been tough. I think we’ll see as we go forward that we’ll settle in, and hopefully, we can put a long stretch together here where we have all our guys.”

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Hutcherson was cleared to return fully to practice after being on a minutes restriction at the end of last week. Underwood also intimated that both Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier hadn’t been full participants in practice until last week, too. Underwood also attributed some of Curbelo’s early-season struggles to how much time he missed while in concussion protocol.

“He was out forever with a concussion, and you just don’t came back from not practicing and not working on your game and not getting extra shots in the gym,” Underwood said. “He just sat idle. He wasn’t even at practice most of those days. Our concussion protocol is you go away. Getting him back involved and in the mix is something that will help him and will help us.”

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Cockburn’s absence differed from losing Hutcherson for three games with a bruised tailbone and Curbelo and Frazier for one game apiece with a concussion and right shoulder injury, respectively.

Cockburn addressed the reason for his suspension — selling team gear in June on The Players Trunk — for the first time publicly ahead of Monday’s game.

“I was definitely 100 percent on going to the NBA, so I just figured I would sell the gear and get some money,” Cockburn said. “Just give people an opportunity to buy my gear. It wasn’t anything crazy. Things changed. I decided to come back to college, and that’s what it was. I was upset, but it is what it is. We move forward. I’m back now, and that’s all that matters to me. I try not to let things bother me, and I try not to hang my head. It’s next game, moving forward.”

Underwood approved of the way Cockburn handled his suspension. That was both in practice, where he regularly wound up on the scout team, and in games where he was in streets clothes and tethered to the bench.

Underwood called Cockburn “an unbelievable teammate.”

“He was a guy that accepted the consequences,” the Illinois coach continued. “He never pouted. He never said, ‘This isn’t right.’ He never was that way. He was a guy that, ‘OK, let’s move forward. How can I help?’ whether that was in practice on the scout team or whether that was on the bench being a cheerleader. In the meantime, he kept grinding and working for that 2-3 weeks. Now, he’s back. I think it kept him in a great place mentally just being as involved as he’s been.”

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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