CHAMPAIGN — When Brad Underwood saw Kofi Cockburn in person for the first time, he turned to assistant coach Orlando Antigua and marveled at what he saw.
"He's so unique," said Underwood, the University of Illinois basketball coach, to Antigua.
In fact, in a 30-minute session with reporters at the Ubben Practice Facility on Thursday, Underwood said the word "unique' four times when describing his newest 7-foot, 300-pound mountainous signee, Cockburn.
"There’s nobody else like him in the country," Underwood said. "You can talk about the best centers in the country and they’re good in their own ways and yet 7-foot, 300 pounds and can run and mobile like that, there weren’t many of those. That becomes intriguing. That gets exciting when there’s not somebody like him."
Plenty of 6-foot-6 or 6-8 guys exist in the everlasting world of college basketball and on the recruiting trail. Underwood and his coaching staff have seen them all.
In Cockburn they saw a massive presence, to which Underwood joked he would need to contact former LSU coach Dale Brown to see what life was like coaching Shaquille O'Neal when the Hall of Fame big man was in Baton Rouge.
“I’ve said it since the first time I saw him that he’s unique because of that size," Underwood said. "He’s still relatively green in terms of experience playing the game. To have that combination of size and athleticism and speed is very, very rare and it’s something I haven’t seen a lot of."
Cockburn towers over his defenders, but Underwood says Cockburn can "really run" and isn't cumbersome. He lauds Cockburn's passing ability and intangibles. The Illini secured a verbal commitment from Cockburn, who took his official visit to Illinois to see the Illini lose to Florida Atlantic.
When Cockburn visited the program, he clicked with Underwood, the coaching staff and the players, but he also saw a massive need for a post presence. The commitment came after Illinois' loss to Northwestern in Evanston. Cockburn signed his national letter of intent on Wednesday.
"Most schools want you, but I feel like Illinois really needed me," Cockburn told Herald & Review media partner Bret Beherns of WCIA Channel 3.
Cockburn is ranked No. 38 by Rivals, No. 41 by 247Sports and No. 46 by ESPN in the country, and is the No. 9 center in the country according to rivals Rivals, No. 10 by 247Sports and No. 11 by ESPN.
He's the highest-ranked post player to sign with the Illini since Meyers Leonard did so in 2010 out of Robinson High School. As a senior last season, Cockburn averaged 14.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and shot 62.1 percent from the field for Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
“There’s not many like him," Underwood said. "The more you watch him, the more you see how unselfish he was, how good a teammate he was and you saw his personality and you start accumulating all those things and they became real positives."
Outside of his sheer size, Cockburn will undoubtedly make Illinois a better rebounding team, where Underwood said the team struggled last year and was a point of frustration. The Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin, being outrebounded by an average of 3.5 per game.
Underwood hopes Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili pose "problems" for opposing teams. Bezhanishvili should also be able to unlock more of his game than he showed last season.
“We’ll be able to do some things differently with Giorgi," Underwood said. "Giorgi’s got some other aspects of his game that we can expand on in terms of his ball handling and his passing where we can play those guys possibly together."