For No. 14 Illinois, the big news entering Monday's game with Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City is that its big man is back.
Center Kofi Cockburn, the preseason Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and a preseason All-American, returns from a three-game suspension for sellingmemorabilia about a month before the state of Illinois approved name, image and likeness legislation.
Cockburn's 7-foot, 285-pound frame will make this team whole. He averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds last season, while shooting 65.4 percent from the field and displaying a more diversified offensive profile. His mere presence will command double-teams inside that grant more room for the Fighting Illini's perimeter players.
Illinois (2-1) still has a question to answer about its backcourt: Can they play fast and be under control at the same time? In its last game, the answer was an emphatic no. Marquette forced 26 turnovers on Nov. 15 in a 67-66 upset, including four in the final five minutes.
"You're not going to win a basketball game on the road against a good basketball team if you turn the ball over 26 times," Illini coach Brad Underwood said. "We didn't even get a good look the last five minutes because we didn't execute.
"We turned the ball over four times in that sequence ... but the number of turnovers and lack of ball movement was really alarming."
Of the seven players who picked up the most minutes at Marquette, six had multiple turnovers. Point guard Andre Curbelo coughed it up seven times and missed 14 of his 18 shots. Trent Frazier did his part with six 3-pointers and 23 points, but he committed three turnovers.
Underwood absolved Frazier of blame for the outcome.
"He hit shots and he made shots," Underwood said. "The leadership he provides every single day is impactful."
Meanwhile, Cincinnati is quietly off to a 4-0 start under first-year coach Wes Miller, the former North Carolina guard who showed he could run his own program at UNC Greensboro. The Bearcats last played on Thursday, routing Presbyterian 79-45.
Jeremiah Davenport scored 16 points to pace a balanced attack in that game and leads the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game, with David DeJulius next in line at 11.3. Five others are chipping in between 6.5 and 8.7 per game.
"I thought we were able to play with a lot of purpose," Miller said. "I thought that we were good ... just our energy defensively ... different guys are scoring it and it seems like we are sharing the ball pretty well. Listen, we have not arrived across any finish lines."
The teams haven't met since 2004, when the Illini captured a 67-45 decision to take a 3-1 lead in the all-time series.
The winner plays either No. 16 Arkansas (3-0) or Kansas State (2-0) on Tuesday night for the tournament title.
--Field Level Media