No. 18 Illinois faces Indiana, aims to remain in first place in Big Ten
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After dealing with myriad injuries and other lineup absences, No. 18 Illinois is coming together at the right time.
The Fighting Illini (16-5, 9-2 Big Ten) will look to keep their hold on first place in the Big Ten on Saturday when they play Indiana (16-5, 7-4) in Bloomington, Ind.
"We've worked really hard to be in first place, and we've got to work even harder to stay in first place," Illinois' Jacob Grandison said. "Last year we weren't regular-season champs, so first we want that one."
Illinois took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with an 80-67 win over 11th-ranked Wisconsin on Wednesday night. Preseason All-American Kofi Cockburn dominated inside against the Badgers, finishing with 37 points and 12 rebounds for his 12th double-double of the season.
Cockburn fought through double teams throughout the game to finish 16 of 19 from the floor.
"When you see so many defenses and the way guys guard you, you just have to stay composed," Cockburn said. "I trust myself to make the right play. I trust my touch. I work on my game a lot. It's just about being patient, making the right reads."
The 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn, who is averaging 22.1 points and 11.6 rebounds a game this season, is one of just two players nationally averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.
"We've seen other teams adjust and do things according to him," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "But he's definitely at the top of scouting report."
Illinois also received a lift with the return of Andre Curbelo, who had sat out the past two games for the Illini due to health and safety protocol. Curbelo finished with seven points and two assists in 11 minutes against Wisconsin.
"There's got to be an ease back in," Underwood said. "There's got to be a feel, a chemistry, not just launch him out here playing 25, 30 minutes. We'll see how things go. He's had very limited practice time."
Indiana is coming off a one-week layoff after beating Maryland 68-55 on Jan. 29. The Hoosiers got a combined 35 points and 21 rebounds from the front-court duo of Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis while holding Maryland to 28.6 percent shooting from the floor.
Entering this week, Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked in the top 10 nationally in field-goal-percentage defense, holding opponents to 37.3 percent shooting.
"I go back to the days when I played here under Coach (Bob) Knight," Indiana coach Mike Woodson said on his radio show Monday. "We always had good defensive teams. If your team is great defensively, you're gonna always have a chance to win."
Jackson-Davis and Thompson will have their hands full dealing with Cockburn inside. Indiana also can turn to 7-foot center Michael Durr off the bench.
Durr has not played in Indiana's past two games due to a coach's decision but was effective guarding Purdue 7-4 center Zach Edey and 6-10 forward Trevion Williams in Indiana's 68-65 upset of the then-No. 4 Boilermakers on Jan. 20.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 3, 2022