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Watch now: Kofi Cockburn doubles down on bold statement at Big Ten Media Day

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INDIANAPOLIS — When Kofi Cockburn declared for the 2021 NBA Draft, he left behind a decorated career that guaranteed he'd be on the short list of Illinois greats.

Now, he's on a quest to be the greatest.

After testing the NBA waters, Cockburn ultimately returned for a third season with the Illini, and he's aiming hiring than he ever has. The 7-footer said as much while standing on the court at State Farm Center for Illinois' media day Oct. 1.

"I want to be the best player to leave Illinois basketball," Cockburn said, with jerseys of Nick Anderson, Dee Brown, Deon Thomas and other Illini legends hanging above him in the rafters. "I want to come here, and I want to break as much records as a I can. I want to win as much games as I can."

Cockburn double-downed on his lofty goal Thursday during Big Ten Media Day at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the same venue where months prior Illinois' season came to a lackluster end in a second-round loss to Loyola in the NCAA Tournament.

The 7-footer isn't haunted by that defeat, but he has emphasized that it's a source of motivation.

Motivation to become not just more dominant, but the most dominant. Not just more great, but the greatest.

"I'm definitely ready, man," Cockburn said Thursday. "Like I said, I know what it takes to be great. It's a lot of work to be done, and I'm willing to put the work in. I'm willing to trust the people around me that's giving me the information, telling me what's needed."

Illini coach Brad Underwood doesn't mind the expectations Cockburn has put on himself. In fact, he welcomes it.

Last season, the star big man averaged 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. He recorded 16 double-doubles, led the nation in dunks (78) and was named a consensus Second Team All-American.

Kofi Cockburn, Illinois

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn speaks at Big Ten Media Day in Indianapolis on Thursday.

No other center in program history has ever received a consensus All-American nod.

"I'm never going to tell Kofi he can't do something," Underwood said of Cockburn's goal to be Illinois' greatest player. "I know Kofi, the way he's driven, that will be something that he'll strive to do. Those are big shoes to fill. We've had a lot of great, great players here. I love the fact he's thinking that way. He's working that way."

Before Cockburn withdrew from the NBA Draft, his jersey was already going to the rafters, according to Illini athletic director Josh Whitman. Since Cockburn's been back, though, Whitman said the big man doesn't talk about what he's already accomplished.

Only what he hasn't.

"I think that is really the secret sauce in any great competitor," Whitman said. "If you go through history and you look at the people who have really accomplished at the highest levels, they haven't needed somebody to light the fire under them. They light the fire themselves. Clearly Kofi has that inside of him. There's a burning desire in him to see just how great he can be. He doesn't rely on Brad or me or anybody to push him in that direction. He knows what he wants to accomplish. ...

"Not everybody has the physical tools that Kofi does, but everybody can have that same drive, and if they can model that from what he demonstrates every day, then I think across the entire program we've got something pretty special."

Kofi Cockburn mug

Cockburn

One player who's already proven that he's a budding star in his own right is Cockburn's teammate, Andre Cureblo. The crafty point guard was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year last season as a freshman.

He'll step into an increased role this season in the absence of former teammate and consensus First Team All-American point guard Ayo Dosunmu, who now plays for the Chicago Bulls. Curbelo said he plans to take his game to another level, and the sophomore has no problem helping Cockburn do the same.

"I always try to figure my guys out, and I think I've done a great job with him," Curbelo said. "And I think that's why I'm going to continue to push him so he can be the greatest player that has ever been here."

Illinois will open its season at home against Jackson State on Nov. 9, and Underwood said he believes this year's team has the potential to be even better than last year's, which won the Big Ten Tournament championship. The Illini have added a couple transfers who should make an immediate impact and a few more players have returned from injury.

But perhaps the biggest factor, literally and figuratively, of far the Illini will go depends on how far Cockburn can take them and himself.

"I'm willing to put it all on the line," Cockburn said. "Illinois basketball means a lot to me. ... I'm ready to go out there and dominate with these guys and make the Illini proud."


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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