Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
March 18, 2022
|4 ILLINOIS (22-9, 15-5 B1G) at the NCAA Tournament|
|Tournament Central||NCAA March Madness Live|
|First Round||vs. 13 Chattanooga (27-7, 14-4 Southern)|
|Date | Time||Friday, March 18, 2022 | 5:50 p.m. CT (6:50 p.m. ET)|
|Location||Pittsburgh, Pa. | PPG Paints Arena|
|Tickets||Ticketmaster | On Location|
|Television||TNT (Kevin Harlan, Dan Bonner, Reggie Miller & Dana Jacobson)|
|Live Stream||NCAA March Madness Live | NCAA March Madness Live App|
|Radio||Busey Bank Illini Sports Network | The Varsity Network App | Sirius 136, XM 203, SXM App 965|
|Live Stats||NCAA March Madness Live|
Appearances / Streak: 32 / 2
Record: 41-32 (.562)
Final Four Appearances / Last: 5 / 2005
Record: Chattanooga leads 2-0
Last Meeting: Chattanooga 81, Illinois 77 (11/21/2015 at Springfield, Ill.)
Previous NCAA Tournament Meeting: Chattanooga 75, #19 Illinois 63 (3/16/1997 at Charlotte, N.C.)
Underwood vs. Chattanooga: First meeting
Illinois looks to redeem themselves after a disappointing loss to Indiana in their first-round matchup in the Big 10 tournament. After seeing Iowa's loss in the first round yesterday, maybe winning the B1G Tourney title makes the ensuing NCAA games more difficult. That said, given last year’s upset to eighth seed Loyola, this year's Illini squad will be under some pressure to advance in the NCAA tournament. While Illinois has dealt with plenty of adversity this year– injuries, illnesses, and even an emergency surgery – they are finally starting to get healthy. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
If you have looked at any NCAA tournament rankings and followed some of the college awards, you’ve likely noticed that Kofi Cockburn didn’t receive as much respect as his play has earned. Luckily for Illinois, that may motivate him to perform during this run.
In this matchup versus Chattanooga, Illinois will be going up against Silvio De Sousa who is known for an incident involving a chair during a brawl. At 6’9” 250 pounds, he still gives up a decent amount of size to Cockburn. That said, for his size he’s a strong and agile big man. This should be a matchup Illinois looks to exploit as De Sousa doesn’t have a lot of size behind him on the bench and he tends to be foul prone.
We’ve seen how successful Cockburn can be when he’s fed the ball and there should be ample opportunity for the Illini to continue with this strategy. It will be fairly surprising if Cockburn doesn’t get close to his season average of 21 points and 10 rebounds – if not more.
After a 7 for 29 performance from the guards versus Indiana, Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, and Alfonso Plummer will need a better showing if the Illini hope to advance. An argument could be made that this was similar to the performance Illinois had last year against Loyola in the NCAA Tourney. In that second round game, Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu struggled mightily. This should be something that is stressed pre-game because they will need more scoring from these guards.
Getting downhill and putting pressure on the rim is something all Illinois players except Curbelo have struggled to do. Frazier and Plummer have had stretches where they’ve had success, but it hasn’t been very consistent. When they are able to get downhill, it makes guarding Illinois much more difficult. It forces the defender to play them honestly which, in turn, gives them more space to shoot from deep. While Illinois would love to have Plummer go off for 20 plus points, getting a decent effort from all three of these players would be preferable to just one of them shooting lights out. When the Illini guards shoot well from deep, the court opens up - not just to open up space for their own 3-point attempts but to open lanes for entry passes into the Big Man, Kofi Cockburn.
Curbelo remains the biggest wildcard of this group. If he is playing well, he will raise Illinois’ ceiling significantly, but that type of play hasn’t been routine this season. Whether fair or not, the expectations surrounding him will be high. He has overcome a challenging concussion, but his ability to create off the dribble is a key for Illini success. If he can just cut out some of the unforced turnovers where he’s just trying to be a bit too flashy, it would go a long way toward upping his game to the level needed to ensure success.
Expect Illinois to out-talent Chattanooga. Expect Coleman Hawkins to make his presence felt along with the return of Jacob Grandison, who is expected to play wearing a shoulder brace similar to Trent Frazier's. Due to potentially overwhelming size advantages, Illinois will be able to dominate the glass and get easy buckets around the rim. As long as they have strong guard play and are able to shoot well from outside shooting team, they will have advantages in all facets of the game.
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