Sports

Daily Digest | Illini move on to life without Kofi; Spring game a first look at new-look Illini offense

There’s a lot of news each day. Illini Inquirer will try to make it easier to digest each weekday morning with the Daily Digest.


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Illinois center Kofi Cockburn on Wednesday declared for the 2022 NBA Draft, ushering in a new era of Illinois basketball. Illini coach Brad Underwood altered his offensive and defensive schemes around the 7-foot, 285-pound physically dominant center — to great success. Illinois went 68-27 overall and 44-16 Big Ten in three seasons with Cockburn, who was twice named an All-American.

  • Cockburn, who currently isn’t projected to be drafted, passed on lucrative NIL deals that would come with a potential fourth season of college to bet on himself and chase his NBA dream. Conversely, Kentucky center and National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, a similarly borderline NBA prospect, on Wednesday announced his return to college and reportedly will make more than $2 million in NIL.


Roster reset: If Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson do not return for potential sixth seasons — Underwood on Wednesday said neither has made a decision — Illinois must replace 85% of its scoring from last season, 80% of its minutes and 90% of its starts from last season.

  • If Grandison does not return, forward Coleman Hawkins (19.0 minutes), wing Luke Goode (8.9 minutes) and wing RJ Melendez (8.5 minutes) are the only key rotation pieces returning from last season’s Big Ten championship team. Though Hawkins and Melendez both showed flashes of star potential, and Goode was relatively reliable as a freshman with sharpshooting ability.

    • Underwood said: “If I didn’t think they were capable of handling the ascension up the scouting report, we would go to the portal and try to find other guys. But I think these guys are capable. We loved them when we signed them and they had moments this year where they’ve shown they can play.”

  • However, Illinois adds a top-10 recruiting class of four 247Sports top-100 talents — G Skyy Clark (No. 26), G Jayden Epps (No. 48), F Ty Rodgers (No. 61) and Sencire Harris (No. 98) — and will be very active in the transfer portal for another piece in the frontcourt and another

    • Underwood said: “We don’t necessarily have that from a game experience. But the talent level is probably better than it’s ever been. I love that piece of it. Seeing young guys mold themselves from good players to great players is what I enjoy the most.”

  • Baylor transfer Dain Dainja is now eligible. He has only played nine minutes during his first two seasons in college, but the former top-100 prospect has a mix of size (6-foot-9, 265 pounds) and skill that has Underwood excited.

    • Underwood said: “A guy with just a different skill set than what we’ve had. Elite handles, elite passer, right hand, left hand. For a guy that big, I call him a dancing bear. He’s just really light on his feet. He’s got some quick-twitch to him. So he’s just a guy that’s a unique piece at that size. Then he’s got a 7-8 wingspan.”


Style change: When Cockburn arrived, Underwood ditched his high-pressure perimeter defense — which forced a lot of turnovers — for a pack-line defense that mostly successfully forced teams into tough twos. He also often centered his offense — especially last season after the departure of Ayo Dosunmu — around back-to-the-basket entries for Cockburn, which were effective and created space for shooters but also clogged the lane for potential drives. With Cockburn moving on and few, if any, bigs like him, Underwood again will alter what he does on both sides of the ball. Expect the offense to be more spaced and the defense to be more versatile.

  • Underwood said: “I think we’ll get back to playing a little faster. …I expect us to open the floor up a little more than with Kofi. But we still got a little time to figure all that out and see how the roster pieces together and what that looks like. …As we grow without Kofi and having him there, there’s got to be a shift in terms of what we do defensively a little bit, and we anticipate that. Not just on the offensive side. I think we can be elite defensively. Dain is a guy who can really move his feet. That will allow us to do multiple things in ball-screen coverages. You start looking at guys with length — RJ, Coleman, Ty, Sencire, Luke — multiple guys who have different positions. Maybe it allows us to switch more. Maybe it allows us to pick up full court more.”


Portaling: Underwood will add to his roster in the coming weeks. The Illini for the last few weeks have been evaluating and pursuing transfers at many positions but will definitely look for a veteran guard/wing to complement its incoming freshmen guards, and with Cockburn gone will look for another frontcourt option to pair compete with Hawkins, Dainja, Rodgers and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk.

  • Underwood said: “The portal’s chaos. It’s truly chaos. You’ve got 1300 people in there. I think one of the big factors is we have to find out who gets into school at the University of Illinois. That eliminates a lot of them. Reality is until Kofi’s made this decision, no one’s coming here. We could think one thing, we’ve done that before and you’re still not going to fill those spots until that final announcement has been made. The portal’s very fluid. It’s something we’re dealing with on a daily basis, and we’ve got to not only just break down film and numbers, but we’ve got to look at transcripts and the academic part of that as well to see who fits here.”


Bottom line: Cockburn’s departure lowers the Illini’s floor next season, and a young team likely will experience a lot of growing pains early next season against a challenging schedule. But the talent Underwood has accrued — thanks to talents like Dosunmu and Cockburn leading Illinois to three consecutive great seasons — gives reason for optimism moving forward despite losing one of the best players in program history.


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Illinois football will host its spring game Thursday at 6:35 p.m. CT at Memorial Stadium. The game is free to the public — with tailgating in Grange Grove open at noon — and the game will be televised live on Big Ten Network.


Game Format

  • Starters will dress in white, with the rest of the team dressed in blue
  • White scoring is normal (six points for a touchdown, three for a field goal), while blue scoring is worth double.
  • Players may flip teams.
  • Four quarters with the first half as 15-minute quarters. Second half TBA.
  • Field goal shootouts at the end of the first and third quarters.
  • Drive starts will be adjusted based on head coach decisions.
  • No kickoff coverage or returns.


The spring game will be the public’s first look at two key pieces of a new-look offense: first-year Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. and transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito. Lunney Jr. replaces Tony Petersen, who was fired after one poor season at Illinois, and reunites with Bret Bielema, under whom he served as an assistant at Arkansas from 2013-17. DeVito has received most of the first-team reps this spring after passing for 3,866 yards and 28 touchdowns to 12 interceptions over four seasons at Syracuse.


Lunney is implementing an offense that still looks pro-style but will run more tempo. Lunney calls it a “tempro” offense. Lunney said this spring that he was aggressive in his implementation of the scheme, terminology and playbook but admitted on Tuesday that the offense is still very much a work in progress.

  • Lunney said: “I always equate it to when you first started driving when you were 16. When I first started driving I was pretty focused on the steering wheel, getting it in gear, blinkers, braking. You were focused because you’re not comfortable doing it. As you get older, it’s a little bit more of a reflex to drive. Right now, our guys are still like 16-year-old drivers at times. We’ve got to get to where we’re middle-aged drivers, where we’re in control but not doing crazy stuff. … It’s just getting comfortable, seeing the signal and like, ‘Oh man, this is old hat. This is a piece of cake.’ We’ve grown in that area, for sure. Got more growth to do.


DeVito comes to Illinois after a strong 2019 season with Syracuse but struggles with injuries and play during the last two seasons. DeVito passed for 2,360 yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions as a sophomore but lost the starting job to Garrett Schrader last season. He and his offensive coordinator — Lunney didn’t recruit DeVito — have spent the last four weeks working intensively together.

  • Lunney said: “The questions as asked do we have guys who can go win games, and we’re not quite ready. We’re not supposed to be ready yet. We’re not ready. We’re going to get there. I feel confident in that. I want to be clear on that. We’ve got guys in our room who I think can play winning football in this league but we’re not there yet. We’ve got a whole summer of prep, of knowing this offense, a whole ‘nother fall camp that allows us around 28 or 30 practices. Those are going to be really beneficial to getting us game ready and comfortable in this offense so we can take it. We’ve made tremendous strides in 13 practices. Tremendous strides. I’ve been really impressed with that overall but we’re not quite ready yet. We’re not game-ready yet. We’ll get there.”


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(Photo: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos, Getty)

Villanova coach Jay Wright has retired after 21 seasons of leading the Wildcats, highlighted by four Final Four appearances and two NCAA Tournament Championships. A six-time Big Ten East Coach of the Year, Wright was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last fall.

  • Fordham coach Kyle Neptune, a 37-year-old who served as an assistant under Wright at Villanova from 2013-21, and went 16-16 overall in his lone season with the Rams.


Wright said in a statement: “Over the past 21 seasons, I have had the opportunity to live out a professional dream as the head coach at Villanova. Patty and I have been blessed to work with incredible, gifted young men who allowed us to coach them and brought us unmatched joy. We cannot overstate our gratitude to the players, coaches, and administrators who have been with us on this path. It has been an honor and a privilege to work at Villanova, especially under Father Peter and Mark Jackson.

“Now, though, it’s time for us to enter a new era of Villanova Basketball. After 35 years in coaching, I am proud and excited to hand over the reins to a member of our basketball family, Kyle Neptune. I am excited to remain a part of Villanova and look forward to working with Father Peter, Mark and the rest of the leadership team. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.”


Why it matters: During the last 13 months, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright have all retired — winners of a combined 10 NCAA Tournament championships.


Most wins among active Division-I Coaches



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Sydney Sickels (Photo: courtesy Illinois athletics)

Illinois softball split a doubleheader on Saturday with Northwestern. The Illini are now 27-15 overall and 10-3 Big Ten after Wednesday’s midweek double-dip against the Wildcats (31-7, 12-2 Big Ten).

  • Game One: Illinois was shut out by Northwestern ace Danielle Davis (19-2), striking out 12 times and managing just two hits in a 3-0 loss in the early game. Lauren Wiles had a quality start, striking out six and scattering six hits while allowing three earned runs in a seven-inning, complete-game loss.
  • Game Two: The Illini bats broke out in the late game with Illini scoring eight runs in just four innings of play, led by Megan Ward (2-for-3, three RBI_ and Bella Loya (2-for-2 with a home run). Sydney Sickels (10-6) threw a five-inning shutout, striking out four and allowing just six baserunners.


What’s next: Illinois hosts Iowa (18-23, 1-13 Big Ten) for a three-game series this weekend at Eichelberger Field.


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Illinois football on Wednesday extended a scholarship offer to junior-college wide receiver Thai Chiaokhiao-BowmanThe 6-foot-2 wide receiver is currently at Independence Community College. He was a three-star prep prospect at St. Thomas More in Connecticut in the Class of 2021 and had offers from Penn State, Washington State and USF, among others.

  • Chiaokhiao-Bowman is the younger brother Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who played at Northwestern and had 82 career receptions for 968 yards and six touchdowns.
  • Illinois is recruiting Chiokhiao-Bowman as a Class of 2022 prospect, so he could potentially join the Illini by the fall.

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Big Ten logo
(Photo: Mitchell Layton, Getty)

The Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday future site locations for the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, and the Big Ten Football Championship Game.



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Have a great Thursday!

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