Omar Payne and Coleman Hawkins

Illinois forwards Omar Payne, left, and Coleman Hawkins go over a play during the team's media day Oct. 1.

TownNews.com Content Exchange

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Omar Payne sat down in the Orange Krush fan section at State Farm Center just a few feet away from Lou Henson court. The 6-foot-10 forward, who transferred from Florida to Illinois, then bent over and pulled the tongues down on his Nike basketball shoes.

It was the Illini’s media day Oct. 1, and Payne was being bombarded with questions about how he’d fit in with his new team, especially considering that when he committed to Illinois, star center Kofi Cockburn wasn’t in the picture. The consensus Second Team All-American had declared for the 2021 NBA Draft, but after testing the pro waters, he decided to come back for a third season in Champaign.

Cockburn’s return instantly pushes the Illini into the upper echelon of the Big Ten and the country, but it also changes Payne’s role significantly. The transfer big man is no longer in line to be the team’s starting center, and he’s perfectly fine with that.

Payne’s shoes — or rather the ‘Every Day Guys’ slogan written on the tongues — embody that.

“I feel like with me, my personality type, I can gel with anybody because I’m not a problematic dude,” Payne said. “So just coming in, I feel like if I go hard and push the team, they’ll push me and it’ll be a great fit.”

Payne said he’s enjoyed going toe-to-toe in practice with Cockburn, who he first played against in high school in February 2019. Payne’s Montverde (Florida) Academy team — which featured this year’s No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham — defeated Cockburn’s Oak Hill (Virginia) Academy squad 76-51.

The lopsided win gives Payne a little bit of bragging rights, but a lot has changed since then, particularly with Cockburn. The 7-footer has become one of the most dominant players in the nation, averaging 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season.

Cockburn believes he and the team can be even better with Payne, who uses his freakish athleticism to play above the rim on both ends of the court. Last season, Payne averaged 1.2 blocks in just under 16 minutes per game.

“He definitely does (give me some trouble in practice),” Cockburn said. “Omar, he’s a strong physical player. He loves physicality, and he has a motor like no other. He never takes a play off. He makes things so weird now being around him and his long arms. You can’t really slack off. You gotta make sure that everything is strong and powerful.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood called Payne “a pleasant surprise,” and he intends to find ways for him and Cockburn to share the hardwood.

“(Payne’s) got a very good 15-17 foot jump shot. ... (It’s) something that is a great addition for us,” Underwood said. “They’re going to play together some. There’s no doubt. And (Payne) can guard anybody. He literally can guard point guards and (centers). He’s got great, great quickness. He’s got that great 7-5 wingspan, so his versatility is something I’m really excited about.”

Cockburn is stoked as well, although the Illini’s opponents probably don’t feel the same way.

“It looks scary, man. It looks scary,” Cockburn said of competing alongside Payne. “Playing any one of us by ourselves is scary. But if you put two guys out there that’s physically dominant and has a high motor that never (stops) moving, it gives a lot of (teams) trouble, man. It’s gonna be crazy.”

Payne said he transferred to Illinois because he “needed a fresh start,” and his new teammates have welcomed him with open arms. He’s confident that he’ll be able to contribute right away because having already played high-major basketball, “there’s nothing I never did before or a stage I never played on before.”

Payne will make his Illini debut in the team’s season opener at home against Jackson State on Nov. 9. Illinois is eyeing consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years.

“I’m gonna come in and work hard,” Payne said, pointing at the slogan on the tongues of his sneakers. “Just try to be the ‘Every Day Guy’ like they say.”

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

TownNews.com Content Exchange