The Big 10: Kofi Cockburn vs. Johnny Davis, ‘three-peats’ in Indy and all my award picks

The Illini and Badgers were conference co-champs in the regular season, and a couple of awards don’t do anything to tip the scales. That’s what the Big Ten tournament is for.

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Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Illinois

Kofi Cockburn battles Ohio State during last year’s Big Ten title game, won by Illinois.

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

How can Illinois center Kofi Cockburn at once be a singularly dominant figure in college basketball yet lose out on player of the year honors in his own conference?

Because Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis was just a tad more deserving.

Illini fans might not love it. A lot of them might cry foul as they so often do about officiating, the media and many other perceived biases and slights. They are the answer to the riddle: What’s orange and blue and aggrieved all over? Hey, it’s part of their charm.

Cockburn has been spectacular, clocking in with 20-and-10s on the regular despite being the focal point of nearly every opponent’s defensive game plan. But Davis put up equally good numbers with less talent around him and was the closer on a team that was almost unbeatable in close games.

The Big Ten’s coaches and media didn’t get this one wrong. Separately, each group voted Davis, Cockburn, Iowa forward Keegan Murray, Purdue guard Jaden Ivey and Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell to its first team and went with Wisconsin’s Greg Gard for coach of the year. On all counts, they nailed it.

The Badgers and Illini were co-champs in the regular season, and a couple of awards don’t do anything to tip the scales. That’s what the Big Ten tournament is for this week in Indianapolis. Will they meet in Sunday’s final? It would be poetic.

On to the rest of the Big 10 (where 10 actually means 10):

2. Three-matches: They could be the story in Indy. If both Illinois and Iowa get through to Saturday, the Illini will have to beat the Hawkeyes for a third time — a tall order — to get to the final. Wisconsin could face the unenviable task of having to beat Purdue for a third time in the other semifinal. And if the Boilermakers get the “W” in that one? They might find the revenge-starving Illini — whom they’ve beaten twice — waiting.

Basketball gods, make all of it happen.

Ohio State v Illinois

Trent Frazier wants all the respect.

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

3. Can both things be true? Rhetorically, there’s no doubt the Illini are peaking at the right time. Whether it’s coach Brad Underwood’s doing or of their own invention, the players are finding motivation in both (a) being disrespected and (b) being the league’s ultimate recipients of respect.

“I would still say we’re underrated, I guess,” fifth-year senior and team leader Trent Frazier said. “We don’t get enough props.”

And yet:

“We’re still everyone’s Super Bowl game,” Frazier said. “Everyone wants to come and beat us every time they see us.”

It must be a delicate balance.

4. Michigan’s man: Juwan Howard returns to the Wolverines bench Thursday for his eighth-seeded team’s game against ninth-seeded Indiana. Is there another coach anywhere with so many eyes on him? Sure: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in his final ACC tournament. But that’s the entire list. Howard hasn’t coached since his slap-’em-up with Wisconsin on Feb. 20.

Howard’s team was 3-2 without him, beating Rutgers, Michigan State and Ohio State under the guidance of assistant Phil Martelli. This is still the most underachieving team in the country, folks. Howard’s reputation could use a surprisingly good March in the worst way.

5. Bubble boys: Michigan probably is fine no matter what as far as an NCAA Tournament berth is concerned. Rutgers, despite being the No. 4 seed, might need a win on Friday. Indiana is in no position whatsoever to lose. The tension surrounding the home-state Hoosiers will be thick.

6. Predictions: Illinois plays its best basketball and edges not Purdue, not Wisconsin, but Ohio State in the final for a second straight year. … Baylor beats Kansas in the Big-12 title game and grabs a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. … Romance loses in the ACC, which doesn’t get its dream Duke-North Carolina final as neither team makes it that far. … Kentucky beats Arkansas for the SEC crown, Villanova reigns in the Big East and Arizona gets it done in the Pac-12 to steal the No. 1 overall seed from Gonzaga in the Big Dance.

7. My AP Top 25 ballot: 1. Arizona, 2. Gonzaga, 3. Kentucky, 4. Auburn, 5. Baylor, 6. Duke, 7. Kansas, 8. Providence, 9. Tennessee, 10. Purdue, 11. Villanova, 12. Illinois, 13. Texas Tech, 14. Wisconsin, 15. UCLA, 16. Arkansas, 17. Houston, 18. Iowa, 19. Connecticut, 20. USC, 21. Saint Mary’s, 22. Texas, 23. Murray State, 24. Colorado State, 25. North Carolina.

Vanderbilt v Kentucky

Nobody owns the glass like Kentucky’s Tshiebwe.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

8. Teammates: Davis and Cockburn were on my AP first-team All-American ballot along with Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji, Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe and Iowa’s Murray.

My second team: Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren, Auburn forward Jabari Smith, Duke forward Paolo Banchero, Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin and Purdue’s Ivey.

My third team: Gonzaga forward Drew Timme, Villanova guard Collin Gillespie, Baylor guard James Akinjo, Arkansas guard JD Notae and Ohio State’s Liddell.

9. National player of the year: It has to be Tshiebwe, not that you need to take my word for it; upcoming awards will reflect that opinion. A rebounder for the ages whose presence in the paint is felt seemingly on every possession, Tshiebwe reminds me of an older, more rugged, less high-flying version of former one-and-done Kentucky star Bam Adebayo. This was an easy pick on my AP ballot.

10. National coach of the year: There were some compelling candidates in Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Gard and others, but my vote went to Providence’s Ed Cooley. The Friars are 24-4, have already improved by 11 wins from last season, won the Big East, lost to only one league opponent not named Villanova, and have a couple of great non-league wins against Wisconsin and Texas Tech. Hard to top.

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