CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — They had seemingly alternated Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards for weeks.
But Sunday afternoon during a 67-66 win for Illinois, IU freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn finally met in person.
Either one or both of Jackson-Davis and Cockburn have been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week in 11 out of the 16 weeks this season. Cockburn leads Jackson-Davis with won seven awards compared to the Hoosier freshman’s five.
“I thought it was a battle of not just two of the best freshman in the Big Ten, but in all the country,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said.
IU head coach Archie Miller has said throughout the season he needs Jackson-Davis to produce on the road the same way he does at home. The typical performances that have fueled Jackson-Davis' own Freshman of the Year campaign have been inconsistent on the road. He had a dominant game against Minnesota on Feb. 19 but struggled mightily against Michigan on Feb. 16.
In the first half against Illinois, Jackson-Davis had 10 points and five rebounds, four of which were offensive. When IU fed the ball through Jackson-Davis — whether that be his scoring or passing — the offense had rhythm. It was why IU was tied at 36 with Illinois at halftime.
Underwood said he thought Jackson-Davis won the first half battle against Cockburn.
“I guess you shouldn’t call him a freshman anymore,” Underwood said of Jackson-Davis. “He’s a veteran now.”
Underwood said he thought his players defended all of IU’s first shots well, but Jackson-Davis created so many second-chance opportunities. Jackson-Davis had an athletic advantage against the bulkier Cockburn, and he was able to win offensively as a result. Cockburn allowed Jackson-Davis to catch the ball deep into the post where scoring a basket became easy.
“Trayce has got great length,” Underwood said. “He’s got unbelievable anticipation. I enjoy watching him play, especially on the glass because he’s got an innate ability to find the ball.”
At halftime, Underwood made an adjustment, one that led to Cockburn taking over in the second half.
Underwood said he knew IU lacked a reliable 3-point shooter, and he saw the advantages Jackson-Davis had over Cockburn offensively. Cockburn said he was told to keep one foot in the paint at all times in the second half, allowing for more space on the perimeter.
Underwood put sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili on Jackson-Davis in the second half. Bezhanishvili cut off Jackson-Davis from being in a good spot to catch the ball and prevented the Hoosier freshman to two points in the second half. Jackson-Davis finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, his 10th double-double of the season. Seven of his 12 rebounds were offensive.
While Underwood thought Jackson-Davis won the first half, Cockburn won the second. He took over the game.
“I’m really proud of Kofi because he was not very good in the first half. We challenged him in the second half,” Underwood said. “With the game in the balance, we kept going to him.”
Cockburn had six blocks, a career high. After he switched off Jackson-Davis, and the Hoosier freshman being pushed out of the lane, Cockburn was ready to adjust and block his shots. Cockburn became a dominant force at the rim that caused IU to rely more on perimeter shooting than it would have liked.
Offensively, the Illinois freshman consistently had his way against IU’s defense. Cockburn scored 12 points in the second half. He finished the game 7-10 from the free-throw, and Underwood talked about Cockburn’s willingness to use his size to get there.
"He’s all of 7-foot-2," Jackson-Davis said. "He’s a load to handle, and he got the best of us today.”
Jackson-Davis won the first half, Cockburn won the second and Illinois won the game as a result.
Both players had a chance to separate themselves as the leader for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Neither of them did, and that shows just how productive and valuable they’ve both been.