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LINCOLN, Neb. — Illinois recruited Omar Payne out of the transfer portal last spring at a time when it seemed Kofi Cockburn was going to remain in the 2021 NBA draft. Landing Payne in April after he decided to leave Florida gave the Illini some assurances while Cockburn went through the pre-draft process.

Then Cockburn opted for one more year in Champaign. He earned preseason All-American honors and is a leading contender for national player of the year. The minutes distribution, therefore, has tilted heavily in Cockburn’s favor and meant another year as a backup for Payne after he did the same for the Gators behind Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Colin Castleton.

“Things didn’t go how I expected, but it’s actually a good thing,” Payne said. “Coming in I’m learning from somebody that's been here. Kofi gives me tips everyday. Now I see what I’ve got to do. He made me more comfortable being on the team, and he’s a guy I hang with outside of basketball so it’s good that he came back.”

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Illinois coach Brad Underwood has been pleased with what Payne has produced in a fairly limited backup role. Particularly on the defensive end. The 6-foot-10 forward’s block percentage of 8.4 percent is more than double Cockburn’s. As it should be, probably, given the Kissimmee, Fla., native has a 7-5 wingspan and 40-inch vertical.

“We thought we were getting a guy that defensively has been everything he was advertised to be — a shot blocker who could move his feet,” Underwood said. “It was just a matter of getting him dialed in to what we do because we guard ball screens differently than he had in the past. He’s made the natural maturation.

“If you take his defensive metrics and numbers and analytics, he’s excellent. We gain when he comes into the game on the defensive side with his versatility and his rim protection. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Payne realized in high school that he could both change the game from a defensive perspective and also earn himself playing time with his efforts at that end of the court. The idea that “defense keeps you on the floor” he gleaned from his high school coaches stuck.

“That’s something I noticed, something I kept in my head, and went with it,” Payne said. “In high school when I first noticed I was pretty good at blocking shots and it came natural to me I fell in love with it. That’s something I love to do. It turns the team up and brings energy.”

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Payne’s contributions at the offensive end have been less smaller.

“He’s probably the guy that has been impacted the most with (Andre) Curbelo being out because he’s so good in ball screens and catching lobs,” Underwood said. “I’ve got to get back to doing more of that with him. He’s a guy who can finish and can play above the rim at levels most people can’t. The important thing is he’s working as hard as anybody on our team. His work ethic has been relentless. His time with (strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher) is starting to pay off.”

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More good news beyond Tuesday night’s win at Nebraska came earlier in the day when five-star point guard Kylan Boswell cut his list of potential college basketball destinations to eight. The Illini were on it along with Texas Tech, UNLV, Arizona, Michigan, Oregon, Southern California and Kansas.

The former Urbana Middle School star, who now plays at Compass Prep (Ariz.), is a consensus five-star recruit in the Class of 2023. The 6-2, 180-pound point guard is ranked as high as No. 9 overall in his class and as the No. 2 point guard behind Camden (N.J.) standout DaJuan Wagner Jr., who is also the the consensus No. 1 player in the class.

Boswell is arguably Illinois’ top guard target in the Class of 2023 if not top target overall. The Illini have also offered Kenwood point guard Darrin “Dai Dai” Ames, North Putnam (Okla.) point guard Jeremiah Johnson, John Paul II (Texas) combo guard RJ Jones and Copley (Ohio) point guard Khoi Thurman.

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Whether or not Illinois plays again this week is still to be determined. The Illini are set to host Michigan at 8 p.m. Friday at State Farm Center. The Wolverines are currently in a COVID-19 pause and had to postpone games against Michigan State and Purdue.

Underwood is still planning on coaching against Juwan Howard on Friday night in Champaign.

“Until they tell us different,” the Illini coach said.

Whether or not Friday’s game happens is something that exists firmly out of Underwood’s control. Michigan will make the call on if it has the minimum of seven players and one coach available for the game. If the Wolverines can’t field a team to that strength, the game will be postponed. If they can and still say they’re not ready, the Big Ten could intervene and turn the game from a postponement into a forfeit.

Illinois is a week-plus past its own COVID-19 pause that shut the program down for 10 days after the team returned to campus following a three-day holiday break. Dealing with shutdowns — an issue that has effected the whole of college basketball — is not where Underwood expected to be this season after last year's COVID-19 impacted slate of games.

“This is a completely different time than a year ago,” Underwood said. “Last year we were all doing the same thing. We spent all fall, all summer, putting a plan together. Then obviously the variant came back. We’ve had guys with bronchitis. We’ve got guys with strep throat. We’ve had guys with the flu. We’ve played. It’s that time of the year.

“I thought the ability to be vaccinated and potentially have everybody boosted as we work through that process as well would allow us to have a season. We eliminated contact tracing pretty much because of the vaccine. I figured we would have issues, but I didn’t know if we would have a pause.”

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Should Illinois and Michigan play at 8 p.m. Friday at State Farm Center the same entrance protocols will be in effect. All fans attending the game must show either a proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within the previous 72 hours.

Those protocols first went into place for last week’s game against Maryland. An additional 30 staff were hired at State Farm Center to fill the necessary job of checking vaccination cards or negative tests, and the new process reportedly went smoothly.

“The feedback from the folks who were circulating through those areas last night reported that it probably couldn’t have gone much better,” Illinois athletic department spokesman Kent Brown said. “The delays at any of the gates were not because of the verification of vaccine cards or negative tests, but backed up because of the metal detectors.”

How long Illinois will require proof of vaccination or a negative test at State Farm Center is still to be determined. Brown said Illinois didn’t use mobile apps that could have shortened the verification process because number of games this change might effect was unclear.

But it will be in place Friday if there’s a game.

“Staffing was down quite a bit because of COVID issues, but in general, everything went about as well as we could hope for,” Brown said. “People seemed to come prepared. There were people that came early to bypass any chance of waiting before. But even 20 minutes before tipoff, in the west entrance, everybody was in the lobby, not standing outside. So those were good signs.”

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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