This had to happen, and Kofi Cockburn, the mighty 7-footer for Illinois, was a likely candidate to make it so.

It took 12 games into the tenure of coach Ben Johnson, but on Tuesday night, before a crowd at Williams Arena that was both late-arriving and early-leaving, this "Who are these guys?'' edition of Gophers men's basketball took a thumping.

The final was 76-53, an Illinois domination based largely on the old-school approach of pounding the ball inside to the most powerful man on the court.

"Anybody that knows me knows that I'm a big fan of getting the ball close to the basket,'' Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

The Gophers assisted the Illini in this strategy by rarely double-teaming Cockburn, putting Eric Curry, in his sixth year in the Gophers program, and Charlie Daniels, in his first, in the impossible situation of trying to stop The Kofi Beast down low without help.

A few times, the Gophers sent a guard to claw at the ball after Cockburn received a pass, but mostly it was catch, muscle, shoot and score, often with an ultra-quick lefty flip.

Cockburn played only 24 ½ minutes, split equally by halves, and took 19 shots. Only 89.5% of those were taken from 4 feet or less.

Johnson tried to make a case for the Gophers not having their usual energy, which is probably more encouraging to his players facing two games a week for two months in the Big Ten, than saying:

"We didn't have a chance on any hardwood in the world against that center, surrounded by that collection of athletes on the perimeter.''

Jamison Battle had a tough time shaking Da'Monte Williams and Payton Willis had zero luck vs. Trent Frazier, and Curry fouled out in 22 minutes of wrestling with Cockburn … and there were two conclusions to be drawn from here:

First, Illinois started the season rated No. 11, and fell out after a couple of early losses, but this is a Big Ten contender and a top 15 team.

Second, this mismatch was more evidence that Johnson and his coaches putting together this Rubik's Cube of athletes already have provided more intrigue for this winter than could be imagined.

The Gophers entered the immense challenge against Cockburn and company standing at No. 38 among the 358 teams in the NCAA Division I NET ratings.

This was based on a 9-0 record in nonconference games, and 1-1 in the Big Ten's December games. It's all conference games now, with a half-dozen teams — Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin — entering Tuesday between Nos. 11 and 28 in the all-important NET.

Johnson has put this respectable product on the court with 106 points (all from Curry) returning from the 2020-21 roster. The Gophers have managed this getting heavy minutes from transfers who spent last season at George Washington, Charleston, William & Mary, Lafayette, New Hampshire and, on Tuesday, McGill University in Montreal.

There is already evidence available that hiring Johnson is a coaching upgrade, when you consider the early predicament Richard Pitino finds himself in at New Mexico.

The Lobos are No. 183 in NET. They are 7-7 overall, with a victory over D-II Western New Mexico not figuring in the computer rating.

Pitino has more points from the 2020-21 Gophers, with transfer Jamal Mashburn's 237, on his squad than does Johnson. Mashburn is firing away, with 213 shots in 14 games, and so is Jaelen House, a transfer from Arizona State.

There's also a tragic tale surrounding Pitino's third high-profile transfer: Gethro Muscadin, a 6-10 center who came to New Mexico from Kansas last spring.

Muscadin left New Mexico after a Dec. 19 loss to SMU. Pitino said he was in agreement with Muscadin that the Lobos were not a good fit for him as a player — perhaps a reference to little attention paid to passing to big men.

Then, on Dec. 30, Muscadin was riding in a vehicle driven by his girlfriend, after attending a Kansas game. The vehicle left the road early in the morning. Both Kansas coach Bill Self and Pitino went to Twitter to ask for prayers for Muscadin, who was seriously injured.

Pitino in 2013-14 took over a Gophers team that won an NCAA game the season before. He went 25-13 and won the NIT, and survived eight seasons that were often sub-mediocre.

He's found the early going much tougher at New Mexico, while back here in Minnesota, we've been surprised at Johnson and his thin roster's unwillingness to accept its predicted fate as a bottom dweller.

"We needed more energy,'' the coach said Tuesday night, and he'll probably get that without Kofi in the building early Sunday in Indiana.