Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Kofi Is the B1G POY and National POY Favorite

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy

February 3, 2022

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Illinois Athletics

Last night was a tour de force for the Illini's Kofi Cockburn. For a player who is continually setting records or threatening long standing records, he played a phenomenal game - even by his own standards. With 37 points, 13 rebounds and 16-19 shooting, Kofi Cockburn is the first player over the last decade with at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and 80% shooting in a game against an AP Top-25 team. Everyone realizes it was a single game but clearly that type of dominance isn't seen often.

Indiana has had similar problems slowing down Kofi, barring referee intervention via confounding whistles, we might see Kofi have another dominant game come Saturday at 11 am central on ESPN as the Illini visit Assembly Hall in Bloomington, IN.

Heat Check #1 - The Case for Kofi Cockburn for Player of the Year (POY)

Kofi has an impressive list of accomplishments on the court this season. This is despite the controversial three-game suspension, missing two games due to concussion and having his team forced to use 9 different starting lineups due to injuries and illness while he was in the lineup. Let's take a look at a list compiled in large part by the Illinois Athletic Department research team after the Wisconsin game:

  • Cockburn’s 16 field goals are the third-most by a player in the NCAA this season.
  • It was Cockburn’s third career 30/10 game.
  • Cockburn is the only player in the nation with multiple 32/10 games this season, and he is just the third player in the nation to post a 37/12 game this season.
  • Cockburn’s 37 points are his career high in a Big Ten game, and one shy of his overall career high of 38 points set November 26 vs. UT Rio Grande Valley.
  • Cockburn is the first player to post 37 points, 12 rebounds, and shoot 84%+ from the field for a power conference team since Brice Johnson (North Carolina) at Florida State 1/4/2016 (39 pts, 23 reb, 88%).
  • Cockburn’s 37 points are the most by any player against Wisconsin since 11/19/2013 when North Dakota’s Troy Huff scored 37.
  • Cockburn’s 37 points are the most by an Illini in a Big Ten regulation game since Brandon Paul scored 43 vs. Ohio State 1/10/12.
  • Cockburn now has eight games of 20+ points and 10+ rebounds this season, ranking second in the country.
  • Cockburn recorded his 40th career double-double – the most in the nation over the last three years – and one shy of the Illinois school record.

Kofi's accomplishments don't stop there, take a look at a list compiled by the same folks prior to the game, because yes, there is more:

  • Cockburn is 9th in NCAA in scoring at 21.1 ppg
  • Cockburn is 4th in NCAA in rebounding at 11.6 rpg
  • Cockburn is 1 of just 2 players nationally averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds
  • Cockburn is 2nd in NCAA with seven games of 20+ points and 10+ boards
  • Cockburn is only player ranked in the top 10 in the country in both scoring and rebounding
  • Cockburn is 5th nationally in kenpom offensive rating (117.3)
  • Cockburn is 8th in NCAA in double-doubles (11), despite missing five games
  • Cockburn is 16th in NCAA in field goal shooting at 58.9%

I realize those lists are repetitive to read. That is the point I'd make for anyone voting for the B1G POY or the National POY. Kofi has done more than anyone to date. Kofi and other players across the country have time to accomplish even more on the court to make their respective cases for POY. The point is based on accomplishments, how can anyone not named Kofi Cockburn be the favorite at this point in the season?

Heat Check #2 - Evaluating Other B1G Stars

After taking a trip through the B1G, in my eyes there are four stars that are clearly on their own level. The Illini have faced Keeghan Murray, Jaden Ivey, Johnny Davis and played against most of the B1G teams. They haven't run into EJ Liddell yet, that's coming on February 24th, but as an Illinois native, most have a pretty good handle on his abilities.

In my eyes, there are four players who stand out amongst the B1G as the true stars of the league (in no particular order):

  • Keeghan Murray of Iowa
  • Jaden Ivey of Purdue
  • EJ Liddell of Ohio State
  • Kofi Cockburn of Illinois

I realize I am ruffling some feathers by not putting Johnny Davis on that short list and I realize I might be a lone voice in the wilderness sharing this opinion. There's nothing to dislike about Davis, his stats are excellent, and his rebounding and hustle are amazing. To me, doesn't have the reliable outside shot of the other wings and his athletic burst isn't quite the same.

In the B1G, the "B1G 4" plus Davis will be a force as long as they stay in the NCAA. I see Ivey, Murray, and Liddell being reliable NBA players. I see both Cockburn and Davis needing to tweak their games a bit to become NBA players, which isn't surprising as the NBA has so many uber-talented individuals that hard work is a requirement to be successful in the league. But there is a difference between Davis and Cockburn.

Kofi already has the physique and athleticism to be an NBA player - and he has the best strength and conditioning coach in the country to push him to new levels. I'm not sure if Davis' high-volume usage and reliance on rebounding his own misses as translating well to the NBA. He doesn't have the size of Murray or the incredible burst of speed that Ivey possesses.

Let's see how things play out. Maybe this column will be one of those "that aged poorly" moments for me. I've been wrong before, so no one will be surprised if I'm wrong again.

Heat Check #3 - Jacob Grandison Returns to Form

Jacob Grandison courtesy Illinois Athletics

After scoring in double digits only twice in his prior 7 games and going 1 for 10 from the three-point line in his last two games, fans were looking for the Jacob Grandison of the pre-COVID break to make his return. After a rough early start to the game against Wisconsin, Grandison indeed returned to form.

The Finnish National Team player went 3-6 from the three-point line and 2 for 3 from inside the arc to score 14 points against the Badgers. His contributions didn't end there. He had a season high 7 rebounds, and he added 4 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot to his totals. The only area that he didn't meet expectations was his 1-3 shooting from the free throw line.

Grandison picked up the pace in the second half has he got 5 of his 7 rebounds. Additionally, the forwards of the Badgers, Crowl and Wahl who shot a collective 7-10 in the first half with 3 rebounds ended up 3-9 in the second half with 3 rebounds. The Illini uptick in defensive intensity was critical in setting up the 13-point victory.

When Grandison is hitting from outside and Kofi is a scoring machine on the inside, the Illini are markedly different team for opponents to defend. With 4 of the next 5 games on the road, including trips to Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State, the Illini will need Grandison to get on a roll like he did against Rutgers (16), Iowa (21), Arizona (14), and St. Francis of PA (18).

Grandison's sense of timing is impeccable.

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