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Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) and Ohio State's forward E.J. Liddell (32) in a NCAA basketball game at State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, January 16, 2021.

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If we can momentarily re-tune a sour basketball note (Chicago Loyola), we’ll recognize that Brad Underwood’s Illini have shown magical basketball strides from a 12-21 swoon in 2019.

They finished one game out of first place in the Big Ten in 2020, and a half-game ahead of Michigan in 2021 (though the Wolverines had a higher win percentage). The two-year conference record of 29-11 is easily the best as 2020’s tri-champions — Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State — finished at .500 or worse this season. Actually it’s 32-11 if you count the 2021 conference tournament.

But three mighty forces are lining up to deter Illini efforts to sustain this upswing. They are the Universities of Kentucky and Ohio State and the NBA. April has been marked not only by portal maneuverings but behind-the-scenes showdowns that could propel Illinois solidly into the nation’s Top 10 or gnashing teeth outside the Top 25.

When the application period for hiring Kentucky assistant coaches ends Monday, we’ll see Illinois has lost the first of these showdowns with the Bluegrass inhabitants. Whether Chin Coleman leaves with Orlando Antigua should also be clarified by Tuesday.

First, Kentucky

With Illini and Kentucky salary offers reportedly topping $1 million, Antigua has multiple reasons to rejoin John Calipari, with whom he had previously served at Memphis and Kentucky.

If master recruiter Bill Self was allowed to slip away without a fight in 2003, this was not the case here. Illini AD Josh Whitman went beyond normal financial limits. But Antigua was ultimately swayed by family considerations and the extraordinary prestige of the inhabitants of Rupp Arena.

In the world of amateur basketball, no program has a more powerful structure than Kentucky. It borders on a commonwealth religion. The Wildcats set the standard in the one-and-done era, and have produced 128 draft selections. They’ve won the most games (2,230), posted 131 NCAA tournament wins, appeared in 17 Final Fours and own eight NCAA championships.

Put simply, they’re not accustomed to losing showdowns for coaches or five-star players.

Specializing in recruiting out-of-country prospects, Antigua has participated in transforming the Illini into a cosmopolitan program with four Puerto Rican squad members and a critical Jamaican (Kofi Cockburn, if he returns) on the 2021-22 roster. Antigua was setting the table for more of the same, a major reason why Whitman was willing to make him the highest-paid assistant in the country.

Second, Ohio State

It seems like a long shot, but OSU sophomore E.J. Liddell and his Belleville family have engaged in serious discussions about him transferring to Illinois. As an All-Big Ten first-team selection by the league’s coaches, he is also weighing professional possibilities while keeping the door open at OSU.

Liddell sees himself as a forward in the NBA, and wants to perfect perimeter skills after being outsized by centers like Cockburn, Iowa’s Luka Garza, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and others. It is not clear whether OSU’s acquisition of Indiana’s 6-11 Joey Brunk will affect Liddell’s decision.

This state’s two-time Player of the Year would be a perfect fit at power forward for Illinois, and his interest drew attention when he appeared on the sideline at the UI’s spring football game when the UI cagers were honored.

Again, the Illini are tangling with a powerhouse in every respect. Columbus is the state capital and the largest city in Ohio, and possesses 300 corporate managing offices, including 15 Fortune 1000 companies that base their headquarters there. Its corporate-political-college leadership is so strong that the city has thwarted professional football, baseball and basketball interests on behalf of this collegiate blockbuster.

This dynamic structure explains why Ohio State football rules everywhere north of Alabama, and why Li’l-ol-Ann Arbor finds it so difficult to keep pace. The advantages become even greater in 2021 with so many businesses available for OSU athletes looking into name-image-likeness income next school year.

Third, the NBA

This 30-team league is the goal of every basketball player in the world.

Junior guard Ayo Dosunmu has made the leap. Most mock drafts have him being selected in the late first round. And now 7-foot sophomore Cockburn, overlooked throughout the season as an NBA non-fit, has jumped to No. 30, according to the latest NBA Draft Room list. This is an ever-changing list. Cockburn will work through the NBA process this summer, presumably announcing his decision in July.

The rookie scale guarantees two years at roughly $10 million per year for No. 1 — presumably Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State — and slides down to nearly $2 million for the 30th pick. And some second-round picks have been able to negotiate strong contracts, as well.

Question is: Would Cockburn benefit financially with another college season? Speaking hypothetically, if he jumped 15 places in the draft, he would earn about $1 million more while losing a year of his basketball earning power.

Should Cockburn return, he would be the centerpiece on an Illini title contender. If he leaves, a program that entered the NCAA tournament at No. 2 would fall, perhaps precipitously.

In summation: When goals are set so high, mighty forces will always block the way.

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

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