TUCSON, Ariz. — Illinois made it a point to establish Kofi Cockburn early in Friday’s win at Grand Canyon. Arizona probably noticed. Hard not to when the 7-foot freshman center put up 23 points and 14 rebounds against the Anteloples.
Arizona’s answer to slowing down Cockburn was a fairly regular double team. Illinois helped the No. 21-ranked Wildcats by simply struggling to get him the ball. The end result was Cockburn’s first game without a double-double — just nine points and seven rebounds — and a 90-69 Arizona victory.
“I don’t know how tough they made it,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of Arizona’s defense on Cockburn. “We missed him six or seven, eight times in the first half and just didn’t throw the ball to him. He had really good position, I thought, and that’s something we’ve got to work on. Obviously, after three games, we know post feeding and post entries are something we’ve got to get much, much better at and spend some time on.
“It changes the dynamic of a game because we don’t put any foul pressure on them at all. We’ll learn from that. We’ll get better at it, yet we’ve still got to be tough enough to execute and tough enough not to turn the ball over.”
That Arizona was going to put some added pressure wasn’t anything Illinois didn’t expect. they practiced specifically for that eventuality.
“We knew they were going to double Kofi with his big game Friday establishing him the paint and feeding him a lot,” junior guard Trent Frazier said. “We knew they were going to load in on him on the opposite side. Our goal was to pump fake inside, skip it to the other side. We didn’t do a good job of executing that.”
Increased defensive scrutiny on Cockburn is something sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu has faced through the first three games of the season.
“Kofi, he should be happy about that,” Dosunmu said. “When you perform like that, teams start dialing in on you and locking in on you. I was telling him that each and every game I’m going to be on a team’s top scouting report. They’ going to try to take away my strength. That’s when I’ve got to trust my teammates.”
Dosunmu had a bit of a bounce back performance Sunday against Arizona with 15 points, four assists and two rebounds after Grand Canyon spent plenty of energy trying to slow him down. Underwood remains unconcerned with Dosunmu on a game-to-game basis. He knows what he’s going to consistently get from the 6-5 guard.
“ I think he’s playing really, really well in terms of trying to understand what we’re doing,” Underwood said. “He understands he’s garnering a ton of attention. That’s helped (Andres Feliz). That’s helped Kofi. That’s helping everybody else is the amount of attention that he’s drawing. One thing I never have to worry about is Ayo Dosunmu in any way, shape or form. That young man works his tail off.”
Giorgi Bezhanishvili found himself in foul trouble early against Arizona. It limited the 6-9 sophomore forward to just 7 minutes of first-half playing time. Bezhanishvili was able to stay on the court better in the second half, but he fouled out with 2:47 to play after being whistled for a personal foul and then an immediate frustration technical.
Bezhanishvili’s biggest struggle Sunday was offensive fouls.
“He’s a guy that everybody knows has a reputation,” Underwood said. “He posts really hard. His offensive fouls are stuff that we’ve got to get corrected. … Almost every game we’ve played this far, he’s had a hook-and-hold with his arms. We’ve got to clean that up, and he’s got to want to clean that up. We do need him on the floor. We’ve got to have a better Giorgi than we had (Sunday) night with just one rebound.”
Alan Griffin scored six points and pulled down three rebounds in 11 minutes off the bench against Arizona. His six points ended up being half the Illini reserves’ total, with Kipper Nichols scoring four points and Da’Monte Williams two.
While Griffin didn’t match his performance Friday at Grand Canyon — a career high three made three-pointers — he’s been Illinois’ best option off the bench in the first week of the season.
“I’m in a way different place mentally, and my confidence has risen,” Griffin said. “It’s definitely showing.”
Underwood still wants more production from his bench, though.
“I thought we got good minutes from Kipper,” Underwood said. “I thought Kipper played with an aggression and was a help. I think we’ll continue to see (Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk) grow. I’m excited about him. … We’ve got to have a lot more from Da’Monte. There’s no doubt about that. We need Da’Monte to be a consistent figure in what we do.”
Arizona’s freshmen trio finished with 62 of the Wildcats’ 90 points. Nico Mannion led the way with 23 points and nine assists. Josh Green knocked down 4 of 7 three-pointers and added 20 points. Zeke Nnaji put up 19 points and five rebounds.
Underwood liked what the Illini did defensively in the first half against the Wildcats and that trio, but it proved to be unsustainable over the course of the 40-minute game.
“They run good offense,” Underwood said. “We just wanted to keep them off balance. To their credit, they made shots that they hadn’t been making. Maybe that was bad defense or bad game plan. That’s on me. There was great tempo.
“It was a high-level game in the first half. Then we reverted back to the stuff that I’m trying to correction, and that’s ball doesn’t go in, not guarding.”
Trent Frazier had a potential fix for some of Illinois’ turnover troubles. Knowing when not to try and score is just as important as knowing when to push things offensively. Not knowing that contributed to the 22 turnovers the Illini committed against Arizona.
“The big thing is knowing when not to score in transition,” Frazier said. “We kind of forced it in transition where the paint is already full. Obviously, that’s what we want. That’s our goal in our offense — six seconds.
"With a lot of bigs down there already set, we’ve got to learn how to pull it out and just run our set offense. We’re going to clean it up, obviously, with us three guards on the court. We’ve got to do a better job.”