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J. Thomas McNamara

Brad Underwood is aware of the rumblings in regard to a possible suspension Illinois junior center Kofi Cockburn might face.

As of Thursday afternoon and the Illini men’s basketball team’s last practice ahead of last Friday night’s last exhibition game,  they’re unsubstantiated rumors circling message boards and social media.

“I know there’s a lot of speculation out there as to Kofi’s … whatever,” Underwood said. “We don’t know anything at this point, so there’s nothing to ask. There’s nothing to talk about. We’re just going through the due diligence of the process of that.”

The due diligence is related to Cockburn selling some of his Illinois team gear on The Players Trunk website last summer after he entered the NBA draft.

It happened approximately one month before name, image and likeness legislation passed in the state of Illinois and received what amounted to blanket approval by the NCAA considering legislation did not exist in all 50 states.

That due diligence process began when Cockburn withdrew from both the NBA draft and the transfer portal and decided to return to Illinois for a third season. That decision was formally announced July 16. More than three months later and fewer than two weeks before Illinois will open the 2021-22 season Nov. 9 at State Farm Center against Jackson State, there is still no resolution.

“Obviously, it is (tough),” Cockburn said Thursday afternoon. “You want to know what’s going on, but I’m not really worried about that right now. I’m just worried about winning with this team. It’s a really talented team. I’m just excited and ready to go, man.”

Underwood said he’s also not giving the uncertainty surrounding Cockburn’s status much thought. The Illinois coach said his focus remains on the basketball court when it comes to the 7-foot, 285-pound center, and that he has received no timetable for when a decision might come down.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Underwood said. “I sit here, and I don’t know. I coach him every single day to get better. Whenever there’s something, there will be something. Until then, I don’t spend a second other than coaching him and trying to get him better. We’ll go from there.”

Any possible suspension for Cockburn would be a serious blow for Illinois. Cockburn averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds last season and earned consensus Second Team All-American honors. The Kingston, Jamaica, native is on the watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year award, was named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press on Monday and claimed a second Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year honor Wednesday.

“I know it’s preseason, and us coaches throw our ‘coach speak’ on a lot of things and say it’s only preseason,” Underwood said. “But I think there’s a respect factor that goes with being named preseason Big Ten Player of the Year in the best league in the country. I think that automatically throws you in a lot of the national talk.

To be preseason First Team All-American on top of that — Ayo (Dosunmu) received those awards last year as a preseason All-American — Illinois basketball, I feel like, we’re in the right place. Our brand is growing, and we’ve got to continue to grow that. We’ve got to continue to build with high character guys like that. Kofi was very deserving in a league that’s got elite, elite bigs in it.”

     This story distracted from Friday night’s hanging of the 2021 Big Ten championship banner and individual rings.

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