CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — The countdown to tip-off is on as Illinois basketball begins a new season on Tuesday, and the team is heading into the 2021-22 season with two National Player of the Year candidates on the roster. Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo were two of the 50 players named to the Naismith Trophy watch list on Monday. It’s the most prestigious honor in college basketball, given annually to the nation’s best player. Iowa’s Luka Garza was the winner in 2021.
Although Illinois will have to open the season without their best player on the court. Cockburn is serving a three game NCAA suspension for selling team-issued gear back in June. With all the hype surrounding his return to the program head coach Brad Underwood is disappointed he won’t be able to play.
“Obviously no pun intended it’s a huge loss, and this group is going to have to collectively rebound the basketball at a very high rate,” says Underwood. “It’s a big concern coming in. Everybody says we’ve got depth — we’re going to find out.”
Illinois sophomore Coleman Hawkins is expected to take over Cockburn’s role for their season-opener against Jackson State, Underwood also added that Florida transfer Omar Payne will see increased minutes.
Da’Monte Williams will also return to the court after being held out of the second exhibition game. Austin Hutcherson was also held out, and Underwood says his status is ‘day-by-day’ along with Trent Frazier who left the game with an upper body injury in their second preseason game against Indiana (Pa.)
The season-opener against Jackson State is set for 7:00 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.