Deon Thomas still holds the Illinois men’s basketball program record with 2,129 career points. Based on how often elite players stay in college basketball — let alone with one team — the Illini Hall of Famer’s record is probably safe.
Thomas’ blocked shots record fell in 2015, of course. Nnanna Egwu now holds it at 201 to stake his claim as one of the best defensive big men in Illinois history.
And James Augustine has a claim on that best frontcourt player crown, too. No player was as efficient a scorer as the Mokena native and his program-best 61.7 career field-goal percentage. The all-time rebounding record of 1,023 belongs to Augustine, too.
From a different era, guys like Skip Thoren (41 career double-doubles), Nick Weatherspoon (most points in a three-year career with 1,481) and Dave Downey (single-game scoring record of 53 points is still his) were all among Illinois’ all-time best.
Joining that elite company soon will be Kofi Cockburn. His No. 21 jersey is already destined for the rafters at State Farm Center after earning consensus Second Team All-American honors in 2020-21.
Cockburn will likely add to his legacy this coming season after deciding to return for his junior year. His place among the Illini frontcourt greats when his career is wrapped?
“I’ll tell you this,” Thomas said. “I may, as a frontcourt or post player, have been the best scorer, but that kid will go down as the most dominant player at Illinois. There’s just no one like him that has ever worn an orange and blue uniform.”
Thomas maintained throughout the late spring and early summer that Cockburn would be back at Illinois for the 2021-22 season.
Thomas understood Cockburn’s desire to go through NBA’s pre-draft process. Even going into the transfer portal was the logical move given the difference in deadline between being eligible immediately if a transfer happened and deciding on the NBA.
“From conversations we’ve had, I knew what his mindset and his mentality was,” Thomas said. “I will say I was shaking a little bit when that (name, image, likeness) stuff came up and he went into the portal. I was like, ‘Ah man, somebody is going to try and outbid us.’ You never know what’s going to happen.
“For him to make the decision to come back home, I think is the right decision. I don’t think he could do any better going anywhere else for any other team in the country.”
Cockburn’s decision to return to Champaign changed the entire dynamic of the 2021-22 Illinois basketball season.
The Illini likely would have started the season outside of the top 25, but at least had the potential in a small-ball type of way to crack the top tier of the Big Ten and into the conversation with the best teams in the country.
“An individual doesn’t make a team, but what Kofi does is add something that no one in the country has and not very many people in the NBA have,” Thomas said. “And that’s a dominant, dominant big man that can give you points and rebounds and defend the paint the way Kofi does.
“To see him come back elevates this team to a level we’ve probably never seen because we’ve just never had anyone like him. And then when he steps off the court, we’re still this quick and fast dynamic team with the pieces that have been added who have better shooting. It’s just crazy. I see how good this team can be, and it’s scary. Everybody should be on notice.”
Cockburn secured his play among the top players in the nation in 2020-21, going from Big Ten Freshman of the Year to All-American status as a sophomore.
Preseason All-American honors are in his future this fall, and he’ll probably snag at least some preseason national player of the year votes while competing with Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and UCLA’s Johnny Juzang among others for that honor.
The areas Thomas sees the Illinois center can improve aren’t a surprise. They’ve been a focal part of conversations about just what Cockburn might be able to still accomplish in college basketball.
“He still needs a solid, go-to move — more of a finesse go-to move,” Thomas said. “Like a jump hook or things like that where it’s more consistent. I still think he definitely needs to extend his pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game where he can knock down that 15- to 17-foot jump shot consistently.
“I believe the last thing on the defensive end is getting better in the pick-and-roll. It’s difficult when you’re 7-foot plus, 280-something pounds plus. As great of an athlete he is, it’s very difficult at times to stay in front of these little guards. That’s another area I believe he has to improve in, and his stock will skyrocket.”