Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
November 22, 2021
In their fourth game of the season Illinois – currently 2-1 – takes on Cincinnati who comes into the game with a 4-0 record. This will be the first Illinois/Cincinnati matchup in 17 years. Illinois leads the all-time series versus Cincinnati 3-1 and currently sits on a three-game winning streak.
Illinois will be getting back their all-American center, Kofi Cockburn, who is coming off of a three-game suspension. He was sorely missed in the recent loss against Marquette. He’ll add a dynamic that few college players have ever brought to the court. At 7’0” tall and 280 pounds, Cockburn can bully most other players in the college ranks.
So far this season Illinois has done well on the glass, but has been unable to connect on second chance opportunities. Cockburn will help ensure this is not the case moving forward as he shoots a high percentage around the rim.
Another area where he’s expected to make a big impact is protecting the basket defensively. He may not rack up the most blocks, but his presence alone will keep drives out of the paint or – at the very least – make his opponents’ shots heavily contested. Illinois’ perimeter defenders should be able to gamble on close-outs and steals because they can count on Cockburn to provide a safety net.
The person who will benefit the most from Cockburn’s return is Andre Curbelo. Curbelo struggled with turnovers and poor shot selection during the Marquette matchup. That was partially due to the number of double teams that were sent his way. He’ll need to make better decisions moving forward when outnumbered, but with Cockburn on the court it should reduce the opportunities for opponents to double-team him in the first place.
Sometimes there may be spacing issues between Curbelo and Cockburn, as neither has shown the ability to stretch their game out efficiently. That’s why shooting will be so crucial for the two through four positions in this and future lineups.
One of the most compelling dynamics will be how breakout star Coleman Hawkins looks next to Cockburn. Hawkins has shown the ability to stretch the floor from deep, has improved as a passer, and brings a newfound confidence with the ball. He’ll need to be a bit more careful with the ball, but he’s shown more upside at the four than anyone Cockburn has previously lined-up with during his time at Illinois.
Determining if results on the court will exceed the newly elevated expectations based on Hawkins' play will be a key in how deep of a run the Illini will make in the NCAA tournament this season.
Illinois 73 – Cincinnati 60
Illinois will be energized with the return of Kofi Cockburn. That, along with the frustration over last week’s Marquette upset, will provide Illinois some pent up energy to take on Cincinnati. The Illinois team will create a defensive challenge for the Bearcats, and even if Illinois doesn’t play their best game, they should be able to put up a win.
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