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Big Ten greats Kofi Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson are back to show there’s still room in the game for size

INDIANAPOLIS – It was almost as much of a challenge to hear Kofi Cockburn speak from behind the small podium on Big Ten media day as it was to keep him from soaking basketball. He was here Thursday afternoon, dressed much more fancy than when we usually see him but still as tall as ever, speaking quietly but proudly trying to establish himself as the best college basketball player and get so much. of success as possible with the Illinois Combat Illini.

Shortly after speaking, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson sat down and spoke about his ambitions and those of his team and the work he has done in the offseason to help make the Wolverines even better than he is. a year ago.

It was truly a 2021 occasion, and not just because the Big Ten chose to place this event at Gainbridge Field House rather than a hotel ballroom near O’Hare Airport. Before the Steph Curry revolution, great men as talented and accomplished as Dickinson and Cockburn weren’t content to just “test the waters” and come back to give college hoops another chance. They rushed into the NBA Draft. They have become top choices. Their teams struggled to move forward without them.

It’s that simple: In another era, before 3-point shooting became the most important offensive weapon in the game, Cockburn and Dickinson wouldn’t play in the Big Ten this season.

“I think it’s sad,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood, even though changes in the NBA have given him another Cockburn season. “I guess maybe I’m kind of the old school guy here. Growing up and watching Jabbar and Wilt, then it changes to Shaq – the closer you get to the basket, the more chances you have to score. Patrick Ewing, all these guys.

“You look at this league, the quality of the great men in this league is unmatched. It’s not even nationally closed. I don’t know what that means for them later; we’ll see. That has changed, and yet they are still dominant college players. I’m excited about it. I know we are lucky to be able to train him. And I hope there is a place for each of them.

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In 2001, four of the top 10 picks in the NBA Draft were great men trained in the United States, and eight of those players were selected in the first round. In 2021, there were only three chosen US “centers”, and none matched the low-post prototype of the Chamberlain / Jabbar / O’Neal days. Former USC Trojan Evan Mobley is a dynamic 7-footer known for his mobility around the track. Texas’ Kai Jones is an even more electric player who only carries 220 pounds on his 6-11 frame. The NBA once worried that such players would be intimidated in the lane, but now shooters like Curry have stretched the defenses so far there isn’t as much traffic inside.

What separates Cockburn and Dickinson from the other big men of the Big Ten is that each was a second Sporting News All-American team in the 2020-21 season. But there are several other talented centers in the league: Maryland’s Qudus Wahab, a transfer from Georgetown; Cliff Omoruyi of Rutgers and slightly smaller but no less competent EJ Liddell of Ohio State and Trayce Jackson-Davis of Indiana. Purdue has two exceptional greats, Trevion Williams and 7-4 Zach Edey.

Dickinson is a 7-1, 255-pound sophomore. He’s a true cross who scored the vast majority of his points last season very close to the goal, more effective than most at simply fueling defenders who challenged him to the rim. He entered the NBA Draft but announced in early July that he would step down and return to the Wolverines. As a result, in a poll conducted by The Athletic and Columbus Dispatch, UM was favored by a panel of journalists who cover the league to win the 2021-22 Big Ten Championship.

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“They just told me to keep expanding my game. That’s where the NBA is right now,” Dickinson told SN. “Just show that you can keep the pick-and-roll, the switches, and then end up on my right hand, being able to do more counter moves. If I’m able to apply that to this year’s squad, I’m not going to force it. We’re still trying to win a national championship, and all it takes is what I’m going to do.

There’s always a place for a mountain man like Cockburn – 7-0, 285 pounds – on an NBA roster, in an NBA roster. But is there room for Cockburn, in particular? Professional teams he spoke to during the early bird registration process told him that he would benefit from learning skills as a passer out of the post (he only had five assists in 31 games last season) and do mid-distance jumpshots. , as well as to comfortably defend yourself when a pick-and-roll change becomes necessary.

Mastering these skills would make Cockburn a better basketball player, but the question arises as to whether incorporating them into the Illini’s approach would make them a better team.

“I think Kofi has an unlimited talent pool,” Underwood told SN. “Are we going to set him up there and let him shoot 15 three a night?” No we are not. Let’s not forget that he had 79 dunks, that he was the leader of the country in it, that he was the No. 1 guy in the country in the ball screen rollers. It is effective there. And yet, can he go and take care of basketball? Yes. Can he play in dribbling transfers and short rolls and pass? Yes.

“We didn’t do it last year just because we didn’t have a chance to work on it during the offseason. He is capable of these things. And that will help us. He expands his bag, so to speak, and that helps us expand our bag.

Dickinson was a revelation as a Michigan freshman. He wasn’t even ranked in the top 40 prospects in the recruiting class of 2020, but scored in double digits in his first 11 college games, including 26 when he made a return to Maryland, where he had played in the high school for DeMatha Catholic.

He finished his season averaging 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds and finished just under a .600 field goal percentage. He only tried four 3 points, missing them all.

“I was not surprised that he was successful early in his freshman year. I watched him in high school and how he was able to make plays being doubled at the post and making the right pass on time, on target, seeing the man open and not trying to make it. more but just wanting to make a winning game, ”Michigan coach Juwan Howard told SN.

“How is that going to translate and transform into the NBA?” I’m not here to talk about the NBA right now because he hasn’t gone that far. He has a second year that he is looking forward to.

“It’s a joy to train. And I like having it in my corner.

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