By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
March 16, 2022
PITTSBURGH -- While the immediacy of NCAA Tournament results don’t typically allow for long-term thinking, Kofi Cockburn has given himself several months to think about this 2022 postseason run.
When the All-American center returned to Illinois for his third season of college basketball, at least part of the reason was to give it another go in the month of March to reverse the legacy produced by an admittedly disappointing performance last year in a 71-58 loss to Loyola (Chicago) in the second round.
“Absolutely I envisioned it,” Cockburn said Sunday. “I knew how good we were. I still don’t think we’ve come close to hitting that peak at being as good as we can get. We’re still learning and still getting better. I definitely envisioned this. These guys are really tough guys. They’re winners.”
After that heartbreaking loss as a 1-seed last year, Illinois fans were suddenly put in the position of a realization that moment could’ve been the final time they saw Cockburn in an Illini jersey. For Cockburn, he did foresee that game, where Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig took advantage of the Illini center for 19 points, five assists and four offensive rebounds as a pick-and-roll weapon, as his final game of college basketball.
“It’s what makes March great,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said Sunday. “You can make yourself legendary in March. He’s got that opportunity. That’s helping our team win. Those are all the things he prides himself on. I’m excited to see him.”
However, Cockburn currently sits with just one NCAA Tournament win as last year was a much shorter run than anticipated and the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out any hope of the 7-foot, 290-pound establishing himself on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. Cockburn, who is just currently 619 points away from Deon Thomas’ 28-year all-time scoring record, just 183 rebounds from James Augustine’s all-time record and already the Illinois school record holder with 44 career double-doubles, understands his memory decades from now can change over the next few weeks if Illinois keeps advancing in this 2022 NCAA Tournament.
“They want to win and they want to get better every day,” Cockburn said. “Just the opportunity to get selected (to the NCAA Tournament) today and be around these guys and have that moment, it was incredible. I definitely saw it (when deciding to return to college basketball).”
On Tuesday, Cockburn one of three Big Ten players (including Iowa’s Keegan Murray and Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis) selected to the Associated Press All-America first team and just the second Illinois player ever to earn first-team All-America honors by the AP, after Ayo Dosunmu became the first Illini to do so last season.
While Cockburn is the first high-major player since 2018, and first Big Ten player since 2004 to average at least 21 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season, the Illini center is still searching for his first double-double in a NCAA Tournament game. By doing so, he’ll join the historical names of players such as Thomas, Ken Norman, Efrem Winters, Ayo Dosunmu, Nick Anderson and Deron Williams all of which have their jerseys hung in the rafters of the State Farm Center.
Cockburn declared for the NBA Draft last spring and even made himself available to the transfer portal before ultimately electing to return to Illinois thanks to the recruitment by Underwood and Illinois assistant coach Geoff Alexander.
“I'm not in a rush right now,” Cockburn said when asked about a future decision. “As of right now, I think I'm ready but you know anything can happen in the foreseeable future, and I'm not gonna take that option away from myself just yet."
Of course, Cockburn could just elect to return for a fourth season of college basketball and that’s exactly what the ‘Orange Krush’ student section was attempting to accomplish with the “one more year” chant as Kofi went through the Senior Night celebration and was on the ladder cutting down a portion of the net during the regular season finale win at Iowa.
“I almost said it, too," Cockburn said with a laugh. "All the emotion and other things going through my mind in that moment, you know, cutting that net down and just feeling so much pride and happiness. It just felt right.”
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