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It is commonly referred to as a “come to Jesus moment.”

That’s when a person undergoes a difficult and powerful realization that alters his or her perspective or behavior.

Pardon Kofi Cockburn if it took weeks for his circumstances to sink in. It must be difficult to comprehend that a second-team All-American isn’t deemed a fit for the National Basketball Association. Neither he nor his New York supporters easily accepted what mock drafts indicated about his mid-range jumper, pick-and-roll defense, post passing and free-throw shooting.

He was unlikely to be drafted (on July 29), so Illinois became his logical option for the third straight season — a fact that UI coach Brad Underwood learned days in advance of Cockburn’s official confirmation Friday.

That’s why Underwood essentially bowed out of the quest for Oral Roberts transfer Kevin Obanor, who chose Texas Tech.

Reasons for coming back

Understand, Cockburn could have earned money professionally. He is settling in for a third year at Illinois because:

  • With his brand embedded here, backers are mustering efforts for a massive name, image and likeness arrangement that would climb well into six figures ... assuming it doesn’t hit speed bumps in the UI’s evaluation of “reasonable limits.”

The students’ platform, Opendorse, estimated that Ayo Dosunmu would have been worth an estimated $400,000 in NIL income last year based on his notoriety and stature ... if maximized.

  • Cockburn turns Illinois into a top-10 team with championship potential, one that will pack the State Farm Center with rabid followers. No minor pro team has this kind of backing, with ESPN’s Jeff Goodman labeling Illinois No. 4 among the “craziest fan bases.”
  • Underwood will construct the offense around Cockburn, as the coach has demonstrated the last two years. And the Illini will be led by one of the nation’s premier playmakers in sophomore Andre Curbelo.
  • Kentucky had already made a strong commitment to Congo-born center Oscar Tshiebwe, in gaining his transfer from West Virginia. At Illinois, Cockburn will receive every reasonable minute, which could allow 6-foot-9 Florida transfer Omar Payne time at both power forward and backup center, much like departed Giorgi Bezhanishvili last season (the manner in which players are used will, under the new transfer rules, impact their decisions next year).
  • Orlando Antigua, who brought the untapped Jamaican product to Illinois, publicly advised Cockburn to remain with Illinois (if not drafted) even as the assistant coach returned to Kentucky. Antigua was a force in Cockburn’s ear throughout.

Keeping their options open

Going forward, Underwood must walk a tightrope in his handling of athletes in the transfer era. The same problems will come up every year. For instance, it is not certain that Cockburn can improve his out-court play, so he might face the same NBA uncertainties in 2022.

And how will the freshmen fit in? In another time, the trio of RJ Melendez, Luke Goode and Brandin Podziemski might be redshirted. It remains to be seen if they can crack the likely 10-man rotation of Cockburn, Payne, Curbelo, Trent Frazier, Austin Hutcherson, Coleman Hawkins, Da’Monte Williams, Alfonso Plummer, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Finnish national team member Jacob Grandison.

Hutcherson and Bosmans-Verdonk are returning from two-year injuries, and Hutcherson has shown sufficient skills in workouts to challenge for a starting role at the 3.

Whereas the Illini were inept at three-pointers two years ago, this team is now packed with shooters. Williams, with 17 starts, shot 54.7 from the arc. Grandison started 16 games and shot 41.5 from outside.

The only question in long-range shooting is whether Curbelo can improve his 16.1 percent (5 for 31) as a freshman. If he jumps into the mid-.300s, watch NBA interest grow.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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