CHAMPAIGN – Another ten-year losing streak fell by the wayside Saturday when the Illini men’s basketball team beat #19 Wisconsin 75-60 at the State Farm Center for the first time since 2011. It’s been so long that the building was then still known as the Assembly Hall.
Kofi Cockburn tallied his thirteenth double-double of the season — tied for best in the nation — with 23 points and 14 rebounds. Ayo Dosunmu one-upped his teammate, garnering a triple-double — just the third in program history — with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
Dosunmu said he and Cockburn play with a synergy that helps each of them rack up gaudy numbers.
“The greatest is playing with Kofi because when he set a screen for me, he’s rolling,” said Dosunmu. “He’s occupying so much attention. I come off, I’m looking to score. If not, I’m looking for a lob for Kofi. If Kofi not there I’m looking for the low/opposite man who’s tagging off Kofi. Trying to use my eyes to hit Kofi with a lob or skip it to the corner.”
Dosunmu said he’s learned to run that option-based offense with mentoring from Illini assistant coach Stephen Gentry. “It’s just a read that I make. Coach Gentry did a great job of telling me what reads to make (and) when to make my reads.”
Cockburn’s scoring came on 10-13 shooting, including eight dunks. He’d already tallied a double-double by halftime, at which point Illinois led 36-23 and allowed zero three-pointers from the Badgers, whose offense launched 40% of its shots from beyond the arc. Illinois dominated the glass, out-rebounding Wisconsin 46-to-19 for the game.
Dosunmu’s rebound total matched a career high. He said it was a point of emphasis in last week’s practices. “I watch a lot of film, and recently — the last couple games — I wasn’t getting back and rebounding. Coach Underwood called me out on the film. He got on me, of course — said I wasn’t rebounding. And then Coach O (Orlando Antigua), he was on me all week, I promise you, every possession in practice — making me run if I didn’t rebound.
“I love to be coachable. That’s my main objective is to be coachable, and listen to what my coaches are saying.”
Dosunmu revealed a hitherto unknown conversation he’d had with Cockburn, over the summer, as the two contemplated returning to college rather than going pro.
“I would say our relationship really took a peak when we were both going through the process of deciding to go through the NBA Draft,” said Dosunmu.
“I called him and we was on the phone for like four hours. We talked about everything, all the scenarios, talking about how good we could be if we came back. It was just a very genuine phone call.
“And since that day, we’ve been close. If you see us anywhere, we always together. If he’s shooting, I’ll wait for him to come to the locker room, and vice-versa. We just comin’ out here and having fun. That’s pretty much it. Our bond has took a peak and now it’s showing on the court tremendously.”
Cockburn, whose family still lives in his native Jamaica, said he’s grown closer to Dosunmu through the ongoing pandemic.
“COVID has definitely given us a chance to bond together. We became really, really close over the past year and a half. It’s just about spending time with each other, finding out stuff about each other,” Cockburn said. “I know basically all of Ayo’s family. I know where he stays. I know who he is, as a person. That creates a really interesting bond when we get out on the court because now we trust each other off the court, we have that relationship and that bond.
“Ayo trusts me, when I give him that ball screen, that I’m going to be low and ready to help him. I trust him that he’s going to make the right pass every time.”
Illini coach Brad Underwood — who reminded the media during his pregame press conference that Cockburn is still only a sophomore — gushed about his star center’s development, but prefaced his remarks by reiterating Cockburn’s potential for growth: “He’s still in diapers.”
With the win, Illinois improves to 13-5 for the overall season, and 9-3 in the Big Ten Conference. Their next scheduled game, February 11 at league-leading Michigan, is now postponed due to an ongoing COVID-related pause in Wolverines athletics. Underwood doubted that his team will have to wait the full nine days until its next scheduled game. He said conference officials are scrambling to patch holes in various schedules, and “I gotta think we’re gonna have a game here sooner than later.”
Illinois already needs to make up postponed games with Nebraska and Michigan State
D’Mitrik Trice led Wisconsin with 22 points. Nate Reuvers added 11. The Badgers are now 16-6 on the season, and 8-5 in the Big Ten.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois athletics for WILL.