Summer 2024

Illinois star Kofi Cockburn trusting God's plan as he leads Illini in Big Ten title chase

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn couldn’t help but smile when talking about his return to the court for the Illini’s 59-56 win over Northwestern on Saturday.

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Cockburn, who had missed the past two games with a concussion, contributed 22 points and nine rebounds as his team moved to 8-2 in the conference and retained its place atop the Big Ten standings.

“I’ve been missing those guys, missing the energy, missing being around the team,” he told the media after the game. “It feels really good. I watched them give their all against Maryland and Michigan State, and I was just missing being on the court with them and sharing that joy.”

Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Cockburn moved to the United States for high school. He spent three years at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, New York, before transferring to powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Virginia) for his final year.

Cockburn made an immediate impact on the Illinois program when he arrived two seasons ago. He averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman and had the Illini on track for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 until it was canceled due to the pandemic.

Illinois was even better last season, going 16-4 in the Big Ten and earning a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Cockburn was an All-Big Ten first-team selection and a consensus second-team All-American. His monster season (17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds per game) caught the attention of NBA scouts and Cockburn put his name in the draft.

He began his announcement that he was declaring for the draft by giving praise to God.

“I would like to thank God for giving me the opportunity to walk this journey and build all these wonderful relationships and memories that will last a lifetime,” Cockburn wrote. “Thank you to my coaches, mentors and family for always offering me the love, guidance and wisdom needed to cross every obstacle that came my way, for them I am truly grateful.”

Cockburn also entered his name in the transfer portal as he weighed his options and got feedback from NBA talent evaluators. In the end, he chose to return for a third season in Champaign. On his first day back in the Illinois facilities, he discussed his decision and the role faith played in it.

“I know how the process is,” Cockburn told the media. “I know how to trust the process. I’ve come a long way. Just making that decision, it wasn’t hard for me because I know how to say, ‘OK, this is not the best decision.’ I’m always going to stick to the best decision. I’m not going to rush things. If that’s the way God wants it, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

With Cockburn back in the fold, the Illini were projected to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten and have delivered on those expectations despite absences from key players. Illinois is 15-5 overall and ranked 18th in the country in both major polls. Cockburn is ninth nationally in scoring at 21.1 points per game (third in the conference) and fourth nationally in rebounding with 11.6 boards per game.

“It’s just about how deep we are and how connected we are as a team,” Cockburn said after the Northwestern victory. “I think everybody wants to win. Every one of the guys wants to win, and that’s the best thing you could ask for as a coach and as a player, is have everybody bought into winning, winning, winning.”

Illinois faces another stiff test Wednesday night when No. 11 Wisconsin comes to the State Farm Center. The winner will be atop the Big Ten standings.

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