CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – Last month, Richard Pitino was proud to see the Gophers basketball program finally produce an NBA draft pick when Daniel Oturu broke a 16-year drought.
In the Gophers' first Big Ten game since Oturu's departure, Pitino saw how much he missed that inside presence against another elite big man.
Kofi Cockburn manhandled the Gophers down low Tuesday night with 33 points and 13 rebounds as No. 13 Illinois blew out Minnesota 92-65 in the Big Ten opener at State Farm Center.
"Kofi does that to you," Pitino said. "He was terrific. He was catching it so deep, it was hard to help. It was hard to trap."
The Gophers (6-1), who played on the road for the first time since March, when the 2019-20 season ended prematurely in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, have a deeper team than a year ago.
But the one spot they're still rather thin is in the middle. After 7-foot Drake transfer Liam Robbins, the only true center on the roster is 6-10 sophomore Sam Freeman, who isn't in the rotation.
It was tough to ask Robbins and even his undersized backups, Jarvis Omersa and Eric Curry, to take on the responsibility of handling Cockburn alone. He outweighed them by 50 pounds. Robbins had two fouls less than four minutes into the game. And then it wasn't long before Cockburn took over.
"Liam's a big presence and helps when he's on the court," junior guard Gabe Kalscheur said. "His foul trouble early in the game really hurt us."
On three straight possessions midway through the first half, Illinois fed the 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn, who was met with little to no resistance. The sophomore center's six straight points were part of the Illini's 14-0 run that helped the Illini take the lead after trailing 18-10 early.
Coming off his 27-point, five-block effort last week against Missouri-Kansas City, Robbins had 10 points and one block in 16 minutes Tuesday. Two of his baskets came on a pair of three-pointers to begin the game.
After getting some shots to fall early, Pitino watched with frustration as his guards struggled to finish against Illinois' physicality and couldn't find any rhythm. Marcus Carr and Both Gach scored 22 points fewer than their combined average of 39 per game in the first six games.
Carr had only four of his 16 points in the second half. Gach, who had scored in double figures in every game before Tuesday, finished with just one point on 0-for-9 shooting. The Gophers shot 28% for the game on 19-for-69 shooting.
Tuesday's game against the Illini (5-2) was the first of eight consecutive Big Ten games for Minnesota against currently ranked opponents, including No. 3 Iowa and the nation's best big man, Luka Garza, on Christmas Day.
"This is our first loss of the season," Carr said. "It's just worth one. We can't let it carry over. We have to have a short-term memory."
It'll be hard to forget how the Gophers got outrebounded 53-35 and gave up 48 points in the paint against Cockburn and company.
The Illini, who bounced back from Sunday's loss to Missouri, extended an 11-point halftime lead to as much as 36 points in the second half on 61% shooting.
They didn't get much from the Big Ten's second-leading scorer, Ayo Dosunmu, who had just 10 points on 5-for-14 shooting. But the story was Illinois' overpowering post play in the U's first game of the post-Oturu era in the Big Ten.