Without Kofi Cockburn, No. 11 Illinois tips off vs. Jackson State

NCAA Men

Kofi Cockburn is the preseason Player of the Year in the Big Ten Conference and a preseason All-America selection by the Associated Press.

However, Illinois’ 7-foot star center won’t be on the court Tuesday night for the season opener in Champaign, Ill., where the 11th-ranked Fighting Illini host Jackson State.

That’s because the NCAA on Monday handed Cockburn a three-game suspension after he sold team-issued apparel and memorabilia on the Players Trunk website in June. Illinois state government didn’t pass name, image and likeness legislation until July, making Cockburn’s transaction illegal under NCAA rules.

Cockburn will miss the Jackson State game as well as a Nov. 12 home game with Arkansas State and a Nov. 15 trip to Marquette. His season opener will take place Nov. 22 in Kansas City, Mo., where Illinois will oppose Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic.

“We are disappointed with the three-game suspension, because there were unprecedented factors and altered timelines related to his decision to ultimately withdraw from the NBA draft,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

“Once Kofi had a full understanding of where he stood regarding the draft, he made an educated decision to return to school, work toward his degree and continue improving his game. … We can’t wait to have him rejoin us on the court.”

Cockburn averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds last season, canning 65.4 percent of his field-goal attempts. The 285-pound Jamaica native developed a soft touch in a 12-foot radius around the basket but still could stand to improve his foul shooting. He made only 55.3 percent at the line last season.

Without Cockburn, the Illini attack is likely to revolve around guards Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo. Frazier is back for his fifth year after scoring 10.2 points per game in 2020-21, while Curbelo is expected to make a big leap forward after tallying 9.1 points and 4.2 assists per contest off the bench as a freshman.

The big loss is Ayo Dosunmu, who was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Bulls after he led Illinois to a 24-7 record and the conference tournament title. Dosunmu averaged 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists.

Meanwhile, Jackson State is coming off a 12-6 season that included an 11-0 mark in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. However, the Tigers lost 84-81 to Texas Southern in overtime in the SWAC tourney semifinals, ending their hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Tigers were tabbed third in the 2021-22 SWAC preseason poll. Their marquee player is 6-7 forward Jayveous McKinnis, the preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team preseason all-conference pick.

McKinnis averaged 12.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots last year, with the latter two figures leading the conference. He helped Jackson State lead the league in defense as it allowed only 62.8 points per game.

“He is a warrior on the floor who competes every possession, plays the game with a high motor and an attitude that we want all our guys to have,” Tigers coach Wayne Brent said.

The Illini have won all four previous matchups, the last in 2008.

This is the first of 12 straight road games for Jackson State, which isn’t uncommon for SWAC programs.

–Field Level Media

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