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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The 2020-21 Illinois basketball season ended almost as abruptly — and with nearly as much disappointment — as the year prior. A second-round NCAA tournament exit left the Illini well short of their national title goals.

Beat writer Scott Richey addresses five questions facing Brad Underwood’s program this offseason:

Does Kofi Cockburn return?

This is the big one. The 7-foot center’s name isn’t exactly synonymous with most of the more mainstream mock drafts outside of checking in as the No. 55 overall pick in the latest from The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie. Cockburn could strike while the iron is hot, and it might never be hotter than after a season nearly averaging a double-double and winding up a nearly consensus Second Team All-American. Ayo Dosunmu came back for a third year and provided a serious boost to his draft stock. That’s not exactly typical, but should Cockburn do the same, he could secure a potentially better pro future.

Who is added to the roster?

The hunt for a big man in the transfer portal will be on if Cockburn decides to leave. The 2021 recruiting class is currently two-strong with a pair of big guards in Luke Goode and R.J. Melendez. That leaves adding another playmaker in the backcourt. The lead candidate is a known commodity for the Illini coaching staff. Nimari Burnett, a former Illinois recruiting target, left Texas Tech after 12 games this season in search of a bigger role, and there’s going to be a Dosunmu-sized hole on roster. If not Burnett, 2021 guard TyTy Washington is available again after recently decommitting from Creighton.

Who’s the next Ayo?

Dosunmu intended to bring Illinois basketball back to national prominence, and he did just that the past three seasons. Now, he’s likely (nothing has been officially announced) taking the next step in his basketball career. That leaves a vacuum at the top. The next evolution of Illinois basketball could very well be helmed by Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. The guard duo has been linked since they both chose the Illini, and the 2020-21 season provided glimpses of what could be from both. That’s a rosy future if Miller continues to evolve as a two-way threat and Curbelo only sharpens his playmaking ability.

Can they sustain this success?

Illinois went without an NCAA tournament appearance from 2014 through 2020 (although would have been in last year sans pandemic). The program reached its lowest point in 2018-19 with a 12-21 record, the most losses in a single season in program history. Illinois basketball was not a factor nationally.Now it is. Second-round NCAA tournament loss aside, this season marked Illinois’ return to prominence. The foundation for success, has been lain. Finding another Dosunmu — a legitimate program-changer — would be the ideal, but Brad Underwood has to keep stacking talent lest the momentum wane.

Are more extensions on tap?

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman took care of thel coaching staff last March after a breakthrough season. Underwood got a three-year extension through the 2025-26 season — a deal that included an immediate pay raise to a base salary of $3.4 million with annual raises taking it to $4 million by the final year. Whitman increased the salary pool for the three assistant coaches by 25 percent, and Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman and Stephen Gentry got deals through 2021-22. The real move might be extending that group again and forestall the inevitable of those guys eventually getting their own program.

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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