Illini Basketball Preview - NCAA Tourney - Illini vs Houston

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

March 20, 2022


4 ILLINOIS (23-9, 15-5 B1G) at the NCAA Tournament
Tournament Central NCAA March Madness Live | Illinois Tournament Central
Second Round vs. 5 Houston (30-5, 15-3 American)
Date | Time Sunday, March 20, 2022 | 11:10 a.m. CT (12:10 p.m. ET)
Location Pittsburgh, Pa. | PPG Paints Arena
Tickets Ticketmaster | On Location
Television CBS (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: 42-32 (.5628)
Final Four Appearances / Last: 5 / 2005


Record: Illinois leads 3-2
Last Meeting: #10 Illinois 102, Houston 92  (12/14/1985 at Champaign)
Underwood vs. Houston: First meeting

Illinois was able to survive against Chattanooga late Friday night, a game in which they led for all of 25 seconds. The Illini are going to need to improve their play Sunday against 5th seeded Houston if they plan to advance. Offensively, there’s nowhere to go but up. Defensively, Illinois was able to hold Chattanooga to 53 points which was a large part of how they were able to sneak by with a victory.

Three Questions:

Question #1 - How can Kofi Cockburn improve from Game 1?

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

Kofi Cockburn was Illinois’ NCAA game 1 MVP, much as he is in most games. But for him, it was a rather lackluster performance. Although he finished with 13 rebounds - just over 2 above his season average - he only finished with 17 points on 6 of 12 shooting and 5 for 10 at the free-throw line.

Chattanooga used a hack-a-Shaq like strategy on Cockburn during the first half. This clearly frustrated him as he struggled from the free throw line and had other possessions where he was most likely fouled but there was no call. Into the 2nd half, Illinois’ guards struggled getting the ball into the post. Cockburn’s only bucket came on an offensive rebound and put-back to put the Illini up late in the game.

Against Houston he will need to take his time and slow down his free throw routine. At a 50% free-throw shooting percentage, teams will take that trade off. Josh Carlton will get a majority of minutes at center position for Houston. Carlton is an explosive leaper and has a very quick second jump, so even if Cockburn is able to get him on a pump fake he will still need to have good positioning with his body to get off a clean look.

When Carlton isn’t on Cockburn, Houston will most likely be going a bit smaller with J’wan Roberts or Fabian White who are both 6’8” or shorter. These should be matchups that he’s able to take advantage of.

Question #2 - Could Illinois switch their starting line up to get off to a better start?

Alfonso Plummer courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

Against Chattanooga, Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo really struggled offensively shooting the ball. They finished a combined 1 for 13 from the field with a total of 7 points. They each finished with 4 assists, Illinois can’t have another shooting performance like this and expect to survive the next round - the remaining teams are too talented.

Frazier started last game, but it appears he’s dealing with some sort of injury/pinkeye as his eye was fairly swollen in the post-game. If this is still affecting him, it may be worth starting Curbelo ahead of him. While Curbelo had 6 turnovers, it was his ability to get into the paint at-will which allowed Illinois to break through and get the ball into the hoop against Chattanooga.

Illinois would rather have the turnovers cleaned up, but, that said, it’s clear they need his playmaking ability. Curbelo brings a lot to the table offensively, but Illinois needs him to step up on the defensive end as Plummer struggles as a one-on-one defender in the back court. This could allow Frazier to come off the bench for Plummer and focus primarily on scoring as soon as he hits the floor, as opposed to starting with Plummer and having to serve as a playmaker for others. This would allow him to be more aggressive and showcase the shot-making prowess we saw against Michigan and Michigan State where he closed them out with clutch shooting.

Question #3 - Will we see any more of the freshman or have Coleman Hawkins and the vets locked down the front court minutes?

Coleman Hawkins courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

At multiple points during the season it looked like Luke Goode, Ramses Melendez, and Brandin Podziemski were each going to carve out their niche role on the team. However, with Da’Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison, and Coleman Hawkins vying for minutes it was always going to be an uphill battle when it comes down to a single elimination tournament.

With Hawkins playing so well on the defensive end on the glass and even providing 10 points against Chattanooga, he will likely be getting 25 minutes barring foul trouble. After that it gets dicey, as the play from Williams and Grandison hasn’t been as strong. Between the two of them, they were able to get 9 rebounds, but as far as threats to score go, they were almost non-existent. If this happens again, Underwood will hopefully be open to the more inexperienced, but talented, young players. Either way, Illinois needs a strong performance from two of these players. If that doesn’t happen, Houston will be more much more comfortable sending double teams in Cockburn’s direction.

Prediction: Illinois 68 – Houston 66

Against Houston, expect the Illini to shoot better than Thursday’s game against Chattanooga. That said, Houston is more athletic and better at attacking the rim which should ultimately lead to a higher scoring game.  Since Houston was able to go to the final four in Illinois’ region last year, Illinois will definitely have a bone to pick with them coming in to this matchup. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to the last possession, but it won’t be surprising if this is a one possession game.


  • Following a 54-53 victory over Chattanooga in the first round, Illinois advances to the NCAA Tournament Second Round and will face 15th-ranked Houston on Sunday.
  • While Houston received a 5 seed, the Cougars are currently No. 3 overall in kenpom.
  • Illinois has advanced to the Second Round in back-to-back seasons for the first time since doing so seven straight years from 2000-06.
  • Illinois is aiming to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, when it went on to play in the national championship game.
  • Illinois is making its 32nd all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and second straight.
  • Illinois has compiled a 42-32 (.568) record all-time in NCAA Tournament games.
  • Illinois' 42 NCAA Tournament wins ranks 22nd among all schools.
  • Illinois' 42 NCAA Tournament wins are third most among teams yet to win a national championship, trailing Purdue and Oklahoma (43 each).
  • 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 all-time 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' five Final Four appearances are second most among teams yet to win a national title, trailing only Houston (6) and tied with Oklahoma.
  • 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 NCAA Tournament seed this year, marking the first time Illinois is playing in consecutive NCAA Tournaments since an eight-year streak from 2000 through 2007.
  • Underwood is making his second straight NCAA Tournament appearance with Illinois – leading the Illini to the Second Round in back-to-back seasons – 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 4-5 career record in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois is a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time – its most at any seed number – and first time since 2006.
  • Following the First-Round win over Chattanooga, Illinois now owns a record of 8-6 all-time as a #4 seed.
  • Illinois improved to 7-0 as a #4 seed when playing its first game of the NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois improved to 6-0 against #13 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, its most wins over any seed.
  • Illinois improved to 24-8 when playing its opening game of the NCAA Tournament, and has won its first game in each of the last four Tournaments (2011, 2013, 2021 & 2022).
  • Illinois is now 31-15 as a higher (better) seed in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Illinois is 1-5 all-time against #5 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.


  • The 54 points was Illinois' fewest scored in an NCAA Tournament win.
  • Illinois led for a total of 25 seconds, taking its first lead of the night on a putback by Kofi Cockburn with 45 seconds left, and scoring the game's final points on a pair of Alfonso Plummer free throws with 12 seconds remaining.
  • It was Illinois' first one-point win since defeating No. 10 Michigan State 56-55 on Jan. 25 at home.
  • Illinois improved to 7-4 this season in games decided by five points or fewer.
  • It was Illinois' third NCAA Tournament game decided by one point, with the Illini improving to 2-1:

1987 First Round – 14 Austin Peay 68,  3 Illinois 67

2005 Elite Eight – 1 Illinois 90,  3 Arizona 89 (OT)

2022 First Round – 4 Illinois 54,  13 Chattanooga 53

  • Illinois trailed 33-29 at the half, recording its first NCAA Tournament victory when trailing at halftime since the 75-72 first-round win over Long Beach State in 1993 (trailed 33-32 at halftime).
  • Illinois trailed by as many as 14 points (20-6), its largest comeback win in an NCAA Tournament game since erasing a 15-point deficit (75-60) with four minutes left in regulation in the 90-89 Elite Eight overtime victory over Arizona in 2005.
  • Illinois scored 14 fastbreak points, its most since game three at Marquette (20).
  • Illinois' three made 3-pointers were its fewest in a win since also making three (3-15) in the 82-71 win over No. 5 Iowa in the 2021 Big Ten Tournament Semifinal.
  • Illinois' 54 points were its fewest in a win since the 54-51 home win over Rutgers on Jan. 11, 2020.
  • Kofi Cockburn recorded his first double-double in an NCAA Tournament, posting game highs of 17 points and 13 rebounds.
  • It was Cockburn's 17th double-double of the season, ranking ninth nationally and fourth on the Illini single-season list.
  • It also was Cockburn's 45th career double-double, most in the NCAA over the last three years.
  • Alfonso Plummer scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, including all three of his 3-pointers and the game-winning free throws with 12 seconds left.
  • Coleman Hawkins scored in double figures for the second straight postseason game, netting 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting.


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