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Most State Farm Center fans and all descendants of onetime Pinckneyville coach Duster Thomas would agree: Kofi Cockburn’s playing time is too valuable to leave him on the bench any more than required by the worst rule in collegiate sports, the five-foul elimination rule.

Thomas, who won the state’s single-class title in 1948 and reached the Final Four in three straight seasons from 1952-54, would often employ his first five as a unit until — or if — someone fouled out.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood can’t afford such outdated extremes, but he’s also aware that withholding the 7-foot junior for 12 minutes with two early fouls may need reconsideration.

With Cockburn seated Thursday night, Illinois’ 21-7 lead dwindled and resulted in Maryland taking a 34-30 lead at halftime. The team was helpless without Kofi.

We are left to believe: The Illini have learned to play winning basketball without all-star playmaker Andre Curbelo but, as was evident earlier at Marquette, they haven’t figured out how to operate without Cockburn.

Look at the numbersFor the record, Illinois was plus-27 with Cockburn on the court against the Terrapins, minus-16 without him, and went on to win handily, 76-64.

In 20 uninterrupted minutes of the second half, Cockburn forced two Terrapin defenders to the bench while garnering 16 points and 15 rebounds. In a half!

More than his personal stats, the muscular Jamaican is vital in supporting his teammates as intimidator, motivator and defensive force in discouraging drives by the opposition. One rating of big men’s value by BPR (Bayesian Performance Rating) puts the Illini All-American far ahead of Gonzaga runner-up Drew Timme.

The thought of next season without Cockburn — and without the deadeye seniors surrounding him — is frightful.

Meanwhile, we should not be walking on pins and needles about his foul concerns. In averaging 27 minutes over two previous seasons, he fouled out once at Michigan as a freshman (he had four fouls 16 times in 62 games).

In 11 games this season, he has averaged nearly 30 minutes in 11 games, and has picked up four fouls twice.

Considering all the banging, hacking and general mayhem in the post, he has remained relatively clear of trouble, with Underwood forever alert to any developing situation. And Cockburn continues to show exceptional durability for a man (age 22) carrying 285 pounds.

In-state prideThrough the years, supporters of Illini basketball have shown pride in producing winning teams with essentially in-state talent. Starters for the Whiz Kids in 1943 and Harry Combes’ three Final Four teams were all from Illinois, and the later arrivals of stars like Bill Burwell, Tal Brody and Nick Weatherspoon were anomalies.

But for two short-term exceptions — Texan Scott Pierce and Philadelphia’s Rodney Jones — Lou Henson’s starting quintets were comprised of Illinoisans from 1989 through 1996.

Lon Kruger’s top-eight scorers on the 1998 Big Ten champs were Illinoisans, and the early-2000s successes of Bill Self and Bruce Weber were overwhelmingly Illinois-based with help from Memphis’ Cory Bradford and Texan Deron Williams.

Dating back to Evanston’s Ray and Ralf Woods (national champs in 1915), this has been an in-state operation for more than 100 years. And that’s what made Chicagoan Ayo Dosunmu’s emphasis on “staying home” — raised here, played here, stayed here — so significant Thursday night, because of 14 scholarship players watching from the bench, Peoria’s Da’Monte Williams and Deerfield’s little-used Brandon Lieb are the only native Illinoisans. Ten of these 14 Illini aren’t even Midwesterners.

Nice progress — so farYes, Underwood’s Illini will slide into basketball’s Top 25 when the next Associated Press poll comes out Monday.

But they won’t be as high as a normal 4-0 Big Ten team would expect. First, regardless of circumstances, the losses to Marquette, Cincinnati and Arizona limit pollsters. Then too, it has become obvious — not a criticism, just a fact — that Illinois victims Kansas State, Rutgers, Iowa, Missouri and Maryland are not rank-worthy ... and, in fact, none of the five is nearly as good as last season (prove me wrong, Bruce Weber, when your virus subsides).

We can argue about Notre Dame, which fell 82-72 in Champaign on Nov. 29. The 8-5 Irish defeated North Carolina and Kentucky, but also lost to St. Mary’s, Texas A&M, Boston College and Indiana before yesterday’s game with Georgia Tech.

And Minnesota, no match for Illinois this past Tuesday night (76-53), has a win over Michigan’s Wolverines (much disappointment in Ann Arbor) but probably doesn’t project in the upper half of the Big Ten with Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa in the way.

So too with lowly (0-4 in conference) Nebraska, the Tuesday host of an Illinois team that has triumphed in 10 of its last 11 Big Ten road games.

Clearly, the definitive portion of the Illinois schedule is yet to come.

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

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