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Illinois center Kofi Cockburn is dominating everybody, and it’s actually kind of sad

Doesn’t anyone else feel sharp pangs of nostalgia when they watch Cockburn catch a ball in the post, clear a scrawny defender or three out of the way and dunk on the whole world?

Kofi Cockburn was too much inside for the Hawkeyes.
Kofi Cockburn was too much inside for the Hawkeyes.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery eyeballed the stat sheet Monday night after an 87-83 loss to visiting Illinois and riffled through his brain for a printable word to describe his team’s cartoonish rebounding deficit of 52-23.

“Unacceptable,” he told reporters.

“I’ve been coaching for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

It’s really not that complicated: The crux of the problem for the Hawkeyes was that Kofi Cockburn was in the building. The 7-foot, 285-pound junior center grabbed 18 boards — the most by an Illini player in a non-overtime game in 25 seasons — to go with his 17 points.

It was the 32nd double-double of his career — tied for most in the country among active players during that same span — for a man among boys who’s averaging 22.8 points and 11.8 rebounds.

Quick, name another true center in college basketball who’s as big and bad and unstoppable as Cockburn.

It’s a trick: You can’t.

And that’s kind of sad in a way. Doesn’t anyone else feel sharp pangs of nostalgia when they watch Cockburn catch a ball in the post, clear a scrawny defender or three out of the way and dunk on the whole world? The college game — when it was just plain more fun to watch than it is now — used to have a lot more guys who could do that sort of thing.

This is rather dangerous territory I’m wandering into. I might be annoying to some or even kind of pathetic. Because the game has evolved, right? Players are better than ever. And skilled 7-footers just don’t hang around in college to deal with the likes of Cockburn; they enter the draft after one season and venture into adulthood while getting paid to develop. There’s little point in complaining about it. Please, somebody hit me upside the head with an “old man yells at cloud” meme already. I deserve it.

But Cockburn is such a throwback — much like Iowa senior center Luka Garza, the 2021 national player of the year, was — that it’s hard to watch him and not be swept back in time.

A generation ago, Cockburn would’ve been a far better NBA prospect than he is now as a back-to-the-basket scorer. But he probably wouldn’t have had much of a chance to be a first-team All-American, not with most of the best players developing at the college level. Tim Duncan played four years at Wake Forest, and Grant Hill and Christian Laettner four each at Duke. Upperclassmen Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal were twin towers on the first team in 1992.

Bulls radio analyst Bill Wennington was a hell of a college player at St. John’s, but he was only the seventh true center selected in the first round of the 1985 draft. All six who went ahead of him at the position — beginning with Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing at No. 1 overall — were fellow seniors.

Ewing was the best player Wennington went up against in college. How many times did they tangle? Eleven, four of them as seniors. The Hoyas won most of those games, and Ewing only got better and better along the way.

“It was great to be part of that era, and it still feels great,” Wennington recalled this week. “Playing in that environment got me into the NBA for a 13-year career and prepared me for what was ahead.

“People ask me, ‘What was it like to play against Ewing all those times?’ I say it got me into the NBA. Because I had to get ready to play him, and it was tough.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood has been praising Cockburn’s growth as a passer, as a thinker, as a leader. He, too, is getting better and better, which stands to reason; this is Season 3 for him, after all. That doesn’t make him a unicorn, but it makes him a rare breed. Too rare.

JUST SAYIN’

My latest college basketball AP Top 25 ballot: 1. Purdue, 2. Baylor, 3. Duke,

4. Kansas, 5. Kentucky, 6. Alabama,

7. Gonzaga, 8. UCLA, 9. Villanova,

10. Arkansas, 11. Arizona, 12. Iowa State,

13. Texas, 14. Tennessee, 15. Houston,

16. USC, 17. Connecticut, 18. Auburn,

19. Xavier, 20. Michigan State,

21. Oklahoma, 22. Florida, 23. Wisconsin, 24. Ohio State, 25. Colorado State.

† ESPN’s “College Football Awards” show is Thursday at 6 p.m., with all the main individual awards — except for the biggest of ’em all, the Heisman Trophy — being handed out. The Heisman doesn’t come until Saturday night, and I’m still trying to decide if I’m going to reveal my vote beforehand. The Heisman Trust deems doing so a violation of protocol and grounds for dismissal from the voting ranks. Insert double eye roll here.

But for the Davey O’Brien (quarterback) award, my top three were Alabama’s Bryce Young, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.

For the Doak Walker (running back): Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, Missouri’s Tyler Badie and Iowa State’s Breece Hall.

For the Biletnikoff (receiver): Purdue’s David Bell, Alabama’s Jameson Williams and Pittsburgh’s Jordan Addison.

And for the Jim Thorpe (defensive back): Baylor’s Jalen Pitre, Oregon’s Verone McKinley III and Cincinnati’s Coby Bryant.

† Think the Bears’ offense stinks? Look, that’s only because it does.

But just remember that 71 years ago on Wednesday, the Bears beat Washington 73-0 for the NFL championship. That’s still the most points scored by an NFL team in any game and was the largest margin of victory in any major American professional sport until the NBA’s Grizzlies tied it last week in a 152-79 obliteration of the Thunder.

By the way, the craziest thing about that whole 73-0 deal? Washington beat the Bears 7-3 just a few weeks earlier. And if that could happen . . .

† Bears 73, Packers 0.

Yeah, right.

Packers 34, Bears 9.

And print it.