By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
November 16, 2021
MILWAUKEE -- Maybe the loss could be negated against Jackson State or Arkansas State but against a power conference program, Illinois couldn’t make up for the 7-foot, 285-pound hole in its lineup.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood found it impossible following a confusing 67-66 loss at Marquette, a program with a first-year head coach predicted to finish ninth in the Big East Conference, to not point out the big difference, literally and figuratively to his basketball team.
“You’re talking about Kofi being a guy who has 60 games (of experience) and now we’re playing three guys there in Coleman [Hawkins], Omar [Payne] and Ben [Bosmans-Verdonk] who have gotten very little run in their college experience. It’s inexperience...and until we get Kofi back, we’ll obviously have a different look about us and experience will be part of that.”
The NCAA Eligibility Center informed Underwood and the Illinois athletics department that Cockburn will be ruled ineligible for three games after selling memorabilia on The Players Trunk website early this offseason. Cockburn announced his withdrawal from the NBA Draft on July 16 to return to campus for his third campaign. From the moment of Cockburn’s official announcement that he would return to Champaign, the Illinois athletics compliance staff submitted its petition to the NCAA Eligibility Center for Cockburn to return the financial proceeds of the merchandise sale to charity in order for him to be eligible to start the 2021-22 season.
Cockburn, a consensus All-America selection who finished last season with 17.7 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game and was the only player in the Division I to post those numbers while shooting at least 60 percent from the floor, was dearly missed on a night where an undersized Marquette (3-0) nearly matched the Illini in points in the paint (26-24).
“I thought we were very passive. Obviously without Kofi, everything we do has been geared toward getting him the ball for 15 to 20 looks and being able to play off that,” Underwood said. “We didn’t have much in the paint tonight and hence, the seven free throw attempts for the night.”
Illinois (2-1) got just seven points, nine rebounds and three turnovers from the center or 5-spot of its lineup with Payne and Bosmans-Verdonk. Without the ability to throw Cockburn the basketball in the post or have the All-American center rim running on pick-and-roll action, Illinois tried to turn to its guard play of Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo and the result was Frazier being able to hit six open three-pointers but Curbelo had seven turnovers and missed 14 shot attempts.
“Look, without Kofi tonight, we knew that Frazier and Curbelo were the guys that were going to make this thing go for them,” Marquette head coach Shaka Smart said. “So, you look at one guy struggled with foul trouble and went 4 of 18 and the other guy really hurt us bad throughout the night.”
Cockburn made the trip to Milwaukee with the team Monday night but was obviously in street clothes as he sat the final game of his NCAA-mandated suspension.
Without having to worry about any inside post threat from Illinois, Marquette was able to have its rim protector Kur Kuath to float around the lane to cause issues for Curbelo’s dribble penetration for five blocks in just 23 minutes of action. The 6-foot-10 transfer from Oklahoma was disruptive throughout the evening on defense and provided seven points and five rebounds on the offensive end.
“I thought Kuath really, really impacted the game on a defensive standpoint,” Underwood said. “He was terrific in ball screens. We were able to get the ball in the paint but that’s where we miss Kofi because when we did that, Kuath made an impact at the rim.”
Illinois will return to the practice floor Tuesday as they prepare for the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City where they’ll open that four-team event with a Monday night game against Cincinnati in the 2021-22 season debut for Cockburn and then a possible matchup against either Arkansas or Kansas State on the following night.
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