PITTSBURGH — Kofi Cockburn was completely at ease Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
Was Illinois approximately 24 hours away from its first-round game against Chattanooga in the NCAA tournament?
Did Cockburn appear to suffer from any tension with a win-or-go-home game coming?
Cockburn put in the work during Illinois’ open practice at PPG Paints Arena, with assistant coach Geoff Alexander running the Illini bigs through a series of post drills.
But Cockburn also called for a pause in said drills to run a halfcourt shooting contest with the rest of the Illinois post players. Then, he faked a wrist injury after a dunk only to laugh at Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and senior associate athletic director Brian Russell, who were watching the practice from the sideline. The joke was on them.
It’s like Illinois coach Brad Underwood had made a point to emphasize to his players the following message: enjoy their NCAA tournament experience.
“The one thing we’ve got to do is just go have fun,” Underwood said. “Our practices are going to be very, very competitive. They’re going to be very light, and we’re going to have fun. … You don’t want to go in and play with pressure. You want to go in with energy. You want to go in with excitement. Really, last season was kind of the first time I felt like we didn’t have that, but we were in the bubble.”
Last year’s NCAA tournament was obviously unique. Illinois missed out on the full Selection Sunday experience by celebrating its Big Ten tournament championship. Then it was straight to quarantine and the bubble.
Fun wasn’t exactly part of the equation. The Illini weren’t miserable, but the circumstances of the entire season — let alone the isolation of playing in front of no crowds most of the season and limited crowds in the postseason — didn’t yield themselves to fully enjoying the experience, either.
“The circumstances made it difficult for us,” Cockburn said. “We’re all human. I feel like our mental health was a little bit off because we were all away from family. COVID had hit. There was a lot of depression and stuff going on all over the world. I think it affected the guys a lot.”
Thursday’s open practice at PPG Paints Arena was more position drills for fourth-seeded Illinois (22-9) than full-fledged prep for 13th-seeded Chattanooga (27-7). That happened earlier in the day. But even in Illinois’ practices with intent, Underwood said he’d seen good energy.
“Now, that doesn’t mean we win games because of that,” Underwood said. “We’ve had a great focus. We’ve had a great presence about us. Just trying to tell guys to enjoy the little things and enjoy the experience of it all, take it all in, let your hair down and let’s go play.”
The Illinois players know there’s a difference when they play loose. They’ve seen what happens when they’re tight.
“There have been instances where we have been a little bit tense,” Cockburn said. “That doesn’t usually work for us. Whenever we’re tense and we’re overhyped, we never play the way we should. (Underwood) just reminds us to have fun, keep remembering the reason why you play basketball, why you started playing basketball and remember all that fun you had when you were younger and when you had nothing to worry about basically.
“That’s when you play at your best, when you’re having fun. You’re sharing that energy with your guys and you’re elevating your guys. That’s definitely been an emphasis.”
Last year’s disappointing end to Illinois’ NCAA tournament experience was, in short, not fun. But the Illini aren’t viewing that earlier-than-anticipated exit as a reason they’ve got to force enthusiasm for Friday’s showdown with Chattanooga.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” Illinois sophomore guard Andre Curbelo said. “If anything, it gives us a chance to even play a little more free and even more fun, just because we know what happened last year, and I think a big part of it was we might have not had a lot of fun.
“We know that, and it was a good lesson, so we’re going to come in this year and hopefully come out (Friday), have a lot of fun, smiles everywhere. Because like we’ve been saying, when we have fun that’s when we’re at our best.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).