CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood was going to be heard during the second media timeout of the first half Thursday night against Nebraska.
Underwood spent most of that pause in action arguing with each of the three officials in turn. The Illinois coach was going to bat for sophomore center Kofi Cockburn, with the way his 7-footer has been officiated this season perhaps finally boiling over.
Cockburn was whistled as part of a double technical foul later in the first half along with Nebraska’s Lat Mayen following a brief altercation. That’s when Underwood knew for certain the Jamaican big man had been pushed too far.
“I think his technical (Thursday) was probably a level of frustration that was a carryover from the last game,” Underwood said, referencing Illinois’ Tuesday loss against a Michigan State team that was just as physical.
“Kofi doesn’t do that,” Underwood said. “That’s not Kofi. … He’s the most abused player in college basketball. It’s not even close. (Penn State’s) Myles Dread dislocated his shoulder taking a swing at him, and Kofi never flinched. I’m going to fight for him. I’m going to continue to do that and he can’t be reffed differently because he’s 300 pounds and benches 450 and squats the building.”
Cockburn found a rhythm in the second half and finished with a game-high 24 points to go with seven rebounds. He shot 8 of 10 from both the field and the free-throw line and was a force in the paint.
“That’s Kofi’s M.O.” Underwood said. “There’s not a lot of finesse in Kofi. Kofi does everything with a tenacity. He’s aggressive. … We did a better job of getting him the ball in the second half. I was obviously doing back flips to see him make his last eight free throws.”
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Andre Curbelo has a ritual before every game. As soon as the “Star Spangled Banner” finishes, he walks up to fellow freshman Adam Miller with a simple message.
“I walk right in front of him and tell him, ‘Have a night, kid,’” Curbelo said. “I believe in him, and everybody on the team believes in him. He can help us a lot.”
Miller did just that Thursday against Nebraska. The Peoria native scored 16 points in the first half and finished with 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting to go with four rebounds before he fouled out. It was needed scoring from the Morgan Park product with another Morgan Park graduate, Illini star Ayo Dosunmu, sidelined because of a facial injury.
“We saw first-hand what Ace is capable of in the first half,” Underwood said of Miller. “A lot of those same things we’ve done and put Ayo in will become things we do with him next year. That’s nice to see. He’s continued to grow in those areas.
“He is patient, he is hard working. I keep saying he’s a great listener. It’s the same with Curbelo. To almost have a triple-double, we see his impact. I could’t be happier with those two and the job they did (Thursday).”
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Illinois honored its three seniors — guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams and walk-on forward Zach Griffith — along with Dosunmu and senior manager Bobby Gikas before Thursday night’s game.
It was an untraditional Senior Night. Families and fans were not in State Farm Center, of course, because of COVID-19 protocols. The event was streamed, however, and included video messages from family and friends for the honored five while their teammates provided the in-house cheers.
“Despite not having my family here, I thought it was special walking out with my family on Zoom,” Frazier said. “I got a chance to see them. Walking out on the court for the last time in a home game, it was really special — an unforgettable moment.”
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Frazier and Williams are the last two remaining members of Illinois’ 2017 recruiting class. Griffith was a student manager during the 2017-18 season before being offered a walk-on role. The other players from the Class of 2017 lasted just a single season. Mark Smith transferred to Missouri. Greg Eboigbodin moved on to Northeastern and Matic Vesel returned to his native Slovenia that same offseason.
“Now there’s only two of us,” Frazier said, referencing Williams. “We bonded real quick — on the court especially. You know, we bonded quickly because he’s such a comedian. He has such a great personality. He’s just always one of those guys you love to be around.
“He’s always keeping it real. It’s just always fun to be around him just hanging out because he’s always going to make you laugh. He’s a brother.”
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Underwood credits Frazier, Williams and Griffith for helping establish the identity of this Illinois team. That they were there from day one means something. Frazier and Williams initially committed to John Groce before buying in to what Underwood had to offer.
“When you take over, you’re looking for guys that are about what you’re about as a coach,” Underwood said. “It wasn’t that we already had things established. These guys established that. They’re as responsible for what our culture is and what it’s going to become. Those guys will live longer than they’re in the jersey. They set it.
“There was a lot of movement — a lot of people that had to come and go — but those guys stayed. Those were the guys that were huge factors in us being in the situation we’re in now.”
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That situation is status as a top-five team in the country with realistic postseason goals centered around making a run at a national championship. Exactly what Williams envisioned when he chose Illinois.
“I definitely used to dream about moments like these,” he said.
Williams restarted the then dormant “Peoria Pipeline” to Illinois. Fitting for the son of former Illinois All-American Frank Williams.
“It definitely does mean something to me,” the younger Williams said. “Obviously, I always felt like we always had talent in Peoria, but not everyone got their shot. I was able to get mine, and I took it and ran with it.”
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Griffith has played sparingly since joining the team as a walk-on in 2018.
Thursday’s game was the 17th appearance for the former Fisher standout and first start. Most of his best moments, though, have come in practice where he’s played a key role in helping his teammates improve.
“I’ve had some pretty good practices on scout team,” Griffith said. “Last year, when I was (Wisconsin’s) Nate Reuvers one practice, I literally couldn’t miss. I felt bad because I was taking terrible shots and couldn’t miss. Scout team’s a lot of fun. You don’t have much to lose. You just try to make the guys better.”
Underwood remembers that practice. Vividly.
“There’s nothing like being somebody else in practice and the coach tells you to shoot every chance when you’re open,’ Underwood said. “Zach’s a heck of a shooter. When he gets it going, he’s a hard, hard guard. He was jump hooking it that day. He was shooting threes. Of course, that just got me all revved up and on the first group. Then that got him going even more.”
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Griffith has seen his role change in practice this season. The addition of freshman center Brandon Lieb to sophomore center Jermaine Hamlin means Griffith can play more power forward. Considering who the other center on the roster is, that’s a big deal.
“I’m not guarding Kofi anymore,” Griffith said. “Less bruises. Less pain. That’s a big transition for me I’ve really enjoyed.”