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Illini Basketball: 10 Best Big Men in school history



Illini Basketball

CorreHere are the ten best big men in Illini basketball history.

Illini basketball has an underrated legacy of quality frontcourt players, so it is not easy paring the list down to ten. This list consists specifically of players who were power forwards and/or centers while they played at Illinois. Some “old school” players are on this list; some of their numbers were too good to deny. Who would you add to this list? What order would you put them in? Here are ten of the best big men in Illini history:

The 2000s

Brian Cook: The Lincoln Community High School product came to Illinois after having one of the more decorated high school careers of any player in Illini history. Cook was a 1999 McDonald’s All-American and Illinois Mr. Basketball after averaging 21.7 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game. His career in Champaign was one of the best. Cook started 17  of 32 games on his way to being named to the All-Big Ten freshman team. His senior year was his best, averaging 20 points per game, leaving Illinois third all-time in points and eighth in school history.

James Augustine (2022-2006): Few players on this list are as accomplished as James Augustine. His career includes a trip to the National Championship game and being named 2005’s Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Augustine played the second most games (137) in program history. The Lincoln-Way Central product is Illini basketball’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage (61.7 percent). His shining accomplishment — the one that puts him on this list — is being the first player in school history (and 12th in Big Ten history) to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds in his career. He left Champaign the all-time leading rebounder in program history.

Mike Davis (2007-2011): One of the more interesting facts about Mike Davis is he played his high school ball at TC Williams in Alexandria. The same high school whose story of integration was chronicled in the movie Remember the Titans. Davis is among the best rebounders in school history, averaging eight boards per game in his three full seasons at Illinois. Davis left Illini basketball second all-time in rebounds and a three-time All-Big Ten performer.

The seven-footer

Kofi Cockburn (2019-2022): Kofi Cockburn’s basketball journey took him from Kingston, Jamaica, to Queens, New York, to Champaign, Illinois. Cockburn was a force for the Illini. He averaged nearly a double-double for his career (17.2 points and 9.6 rebounds). Cockburn was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a two-time All-Big Ten First team selection, and a two-time All-American (2nd team 2021, 1st team 2022). He is third in school history in rebounds.

Ode to the Old School 50s, 60s & 70s

Johnny “Red” Kerr (1951-1954): If you watched Chicago Bulls basketball during the Jordan era, you might know Johnny “Red” Kerr as the voice of the Bulls in the 90s. However, Kerr is one of the first — if not the first– of the great big men to play for Illinois. His basketball journey is one of the great narratives in basketball. Kerr was a Chicago kid who became an All-American for the state university of Illinois. Kerr was one of the most prolific scorers in school history, averaging 18.6 points per game at Illinois.

Skip Thoren (1962-1965): After an All-State senior season at Rockford East High School, Duane “Skip” Thoren decided to play his college basketball at Illinois. One reason Thoren makes this list is his single-game record of 24 rebounds has stood since 1963. Also, Thoren is one of two players on this list to average a double-double for his career (15.7 points and 11.2 rebounds). At 6-foot-10, Thoren was a force on both sides of the ball, averaging 21.2 points per game his last two full seasons at Illinois.

Nick Weatherspoon (1970-1973):  At 6-foot-7 forward, Nick Weatherspoon did not have the traditional size of a power forward. He was still one of the best rebounders on this list. He and Skip Thoren are the only players on this list to average a double-double (20.9 points and 11.14 rebounds). Those career averages stood for over forty years. As a result, Weatherspoon is 9th all-time in rebounds and was an All-Big Ten selection in 1973.

The 80s and 90s

Ken Norman (1985-1987): Ken Norman is one of the more versatile players on our list. Consequently, he got the nickname “Snake” from his playground days growing up in Chicago. Norman played small forward during most of his ten-year NBA career. However, he was a power forward for most of his college career. His best year in Champaign was his final one, averaging 20.7  points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

Efrem Winters (1982-1986): Winters decided to play for the Illini after a decorated high school career at Chicago King High School. He was a Parade All-American and a McDonald’s All-American. Correspondingly, Winters had a solid career in Champaign, playing all but one game. Winters ended his career top ten all-time in blocks and also rebounds in school history.

Deon Thomas (1990-1994): Another Chicago high school product, Deon Thomas, played basketball at Simeon High School. Thomas was a McDonald’s All-American and Illinois Mr. Basketball in 1989. During his time in Champaign, Thomas became one of the best two-way players in school history. Thomas is Illini basketball’s all-time leading scorer, fifth all-time in blocks, and second all-time in block shots. As a result, Thomas might be the best player on this list.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.