Illini Basketball Preview - NCAA Tourney - Illini vs Chattanooga

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

March 18, 2022

Essentials:

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

NCAA TOURNAMENT HISTORY

Appearances / Streak: 32 / 2
Record: 41-32 (.562)
Final Four Appearances / Last: 5 / 2005

SERIES NOTES VS. CHATTANOOGA

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.

Two Questions:

Question #1 - Can Illinois continue to feed the Big Man?

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Illinois Athletics

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.

Question #2 - Can Illinois’ trio of guards bounce back?

Alfonso Plummer courtesy Illinois Athletics

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.

Prediction: Illinois 78 – Chattanooga 62

Coleman Hawkins courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

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.

NCAA TOURNAMENT NOTES

  • Illinois is making its 32nd all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and second straight.
  • Illinois ranks fifth among Big Ten teams and 22nd among all NCAA schools for most Tournament appearances.
  • Illinois has compiled a 41-32 (.562) record all-time in NCAA Tournament games.
  • Illinois' 41 NCAA Tournament wins ranks 22nd among all schools.
  • Since 1975, when the field was increased to 32 teams, Illinois has advanced to the Sweet 16 eight times, the Elite Eight four times, and the Final Four twice.
  • Illinois has made five appearances in the NCAA Final Four, finishing as the national runner-up in 2005, placing third in 1949, 1951 and 1952, and tying for third in 1989.
  • Illinois enters the weekend aiming to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, when it went on to play in the national championship game.
  • Head Coach Brad Underwood has brought Fighting Illini Basketball back to being a national contender. His rebuild of the program brought success in year three of his tenure, leading the Illini to a top-25 finish and what would have been an NCAA Tournament appearance before the 2020 postseason was canceled due to COVID-19. He directed Illinois to a Big Ten Tournament title and #1 seed last year as Illinois played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Underwood has guided the Illini to a Big Ten Championship and #4 seed this year, marking the first time Illinois will play in consecutive NCAA Tournaments since an eight-year streak from 2000 through 2007.
  • Underwood is making his second NCAA Tournament appearance with Illinois, and his sixth trip to the big dance with his third program in nine seasons as a Div. I head coach. He previously led Stephen F. Austin to three consecutive appearances from 2014-2016, advancing to the Round of 32 in 2014 and 2016. He then took Oklahoma State to the Tournament in his lone season in Stillwater in 2017. Underwood owns a 3-5 career record in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois has 10 players on its roster with NCAA Tournament experience: Kofi CockburnAndre CurbeloTrent FrazierJacob Grandison and Da'Monte Williams (two games apiece in 2021), Benjamin Bosmans-VerdonkColeman HawkinsBrandon Lieb and Connor Serven (one game each in 2021), and Omar Payne (one game in 2021 at Florida).
  • Kofi Cockburn averaged 19.5 points on 65.2% shooting in last year's NCAA Tournament.
  • Andre Curbelo averaged 8.5 points and 6.0 assists and shot 57.1% in last year's NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois has earned a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time – its most at any seed number – and first time since 2006.
  • Illinois owns a record of 7-6 all-time as a #4 seed.
  • Illinois is 6-0 as a #4 seed when playing its first game of the NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois is 5-0 against #13 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, its most wins over any seed.
  • Illinois is 23-8 when playing its opening game of the NCAA Tournament, and has won its first game in each of the last three Tournaments (2011, 2013 & 2021).
  • Illinois is 30-15 as a higher (better) seed in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois is playing in Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
  • Illinois is in the South Region for the second time, and first since 2009 (0-1).
  • Illinois played a total of 17 games against 11 teams that made this year's NCAA Tournament, compiling a record of 10-7.
  • There are nine Big Ten teams participating in this year's NCAA Tournament: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin.
  • The Big Ten has tied its league record with nine bids for the second straight year, which also is second-most for any conference behind the 2011 Big East (11).
  • Illinois' 41 NCAA Tournament wins are third most among teams yet to win a national championship, trailing Oklahoma (43) and Purdue (42).
  • Illinois' five Final Four appearances are second most among teams yet to win a national title, trailing only Houston (6) and tied with Oklahoma.

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