CHAMPAIGN — Illinois fans can breathe a sigh of relief.
Star center Kofi Cockburn is not headed to Kentucky, Florida State or any other program for his junior season. The 7-foot, 285-pound Jamaica native — who initially declared for the 2021 NBA Draft and then withdrew and remained in the NCAA transfer portal — will continue his college career where it began: with the Illini.
Cockburn announced his decision in a video shared via Twitter and Instagram on Friday evening, officially ending weeks of speculation that he'd leave Illinois and coach Brad Underwood for Kentucky. The Wildcats hired former Illini assistants Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman, who left Champaign after the 2020-21 season, but it wasn't enough for them to pull off the trifecta.
"It's time to bring a national championship back to Champaign," Cockburn said in the video.
Cockburn, who CBS Sports ranked as the No. 1 player in the transfer portal, released his top three programs Wednesday via Twitter and Instagram, choosing between Illinois, Kentucky and, surprisingly, Florida State. However, for at least one more season, Champaign will be the home of arguably the most dominant force in the NCAA.
"We are beyond thrilled to have Kofi remain a Fighting Illini and add the nation's top player to our lineup," Underwood said in a press release. "Kofi has been thorough during every step of his process, from exploring professional opportunities to making the decision to return to college. He has played a major role in our success the last two years and has more individual and team goals to achieve this season. Kofi will have the chance to expand new aspects of his game while continuing to be a dominant inside force on both ends of the floor."
Cockburn's return instantly pushes the Illini into the upper echelon of the Big Ten and the country, despite the loss of two other starters from last season — former consensus First Team All-American point guard Ayo Dosunmu and guard Adam Miller. Dosunmu is projected as a late first-round pick in the NBA Draft, scheduled for July 29 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, while Miller transferred to LSU.
Illinois, which is the defending Big Ten Tournament champion, still has a strong group to pair with Cockburn. Fifth-year guards Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams are back, as well as dazzling sophomore guard Andre Curbelo, who was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year last season. The Illini have also added guard Alfonso Plummer, a 3-point specialist, and forward Omar Payne, who transferred from Utah and Florida, respectively.
Cockburn has had an illustrious college career so far, and Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman even told the media in June that Cockburn and Dosunmu "will eventually have their jerseys in the rafters here at State Farm Center."
That ceremony, at least for Cockburn, will have to wait as he adds another season to his resume. The 7-footer was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2019-20 after averaging 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He followed that up by averaging 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a sophomore in 2020-21, eventually leading to a consensus Second Team All-American selection.
Although Cockburn hasn't turned pro just yet, he still stands to make a lot of money in college. Nationwide name, image and likeness legislation was passed July 1, allowing NCAA athletes across the country to profit off of endorsements. As one of the faces of men's college basketball, Cockburn, a dual-citizen of the United States and Jamaica, should have a long list of companies lining up to partner with him.
Plus, it won't be hard to sell a good comeback story to the bulk of his fan base in Champaign.
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid