The Illinois Fighting Illini, co-champions of the Big Ten during the regular season, will take on the Chattanooga Mocs in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday evening in Pittsburgh.
The Illini, who lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, were awarded a fourth-seed by the committee, while the Southern Conference-champion Mocs earned a 13-seed into the tournament.
How to Watch the Game
Illinois and Chattanooga will get underway from Pittsburgh at 5:50 p.m. on Friday, and the game will air on TNT.
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The winner of the game will take on the winner of Friday’s game between Houston and UAB, which will take place at 12:15 p.m.
The Betting Odds
Illinois: -7.5 (FanDuel), -7.5 (DraftKings)
O/U: 135.5 (FanDuel), 135.5 (DraftKings)
How Illinois Got Here
While the Fighting Illini were the co-champions during a rough-and-tumble Big Ten regular season, they were quickly dispatched from the conference tournament, getting upset by the Indiana Hoosiers in their quarterfinal contest.
Illinois had several chances to win the game, but poor free-throw shooting down the stretch ultimately didn’t help matters, as the Illini shot 15-of-23 from the charity stripe in a two-point loss to the Hoosiers.
That loss landed Illinois a 15-5 record in Big Ten play, and earned them a fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Meet the Mocs
Chattanooga was able to get into the NCAA Tournament by the skin of their teeth, getting an overtime game-winning three-pointer from David Jean-Baptiste to capture the Southern Conference crown.
Prior to that remarkable finish, the Mocs had a strong regular season, putting up the best record in the Southern and running to a 27-7 mark on the season.
They were led on the scoring front by their terrific duo of guards, with Malachi Smith averaging 20.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, while Jean-Baptiste averaged 14.7 points, 2.3 assists and 1.2 steals per contest in 32 games.
Led by that dynamic duo, the Mocs won 14 of their last 17 games to go dancing, and they’ll hope to make some noise in their showdown with the Illini.
Dynamic Middle Matchup
Illini fans are familiar with Cockburn’s exploits in the paint, and he’s going to be a critical component if Illinois hopes to advance to the second round in Pittsburgh.
Cockburn led the Illini in points (21.1) and rebounds (10.6) per game this season, and he also averaged nearly a block per contest. His dominant presence down low has been a deciding factor in several games this season, and he’ll hope to continue that against a Chattanooga team that struggled to contain offenses inside the three-point line this season.
Even still, Cockburn will have some serious opposition in the paint in the form of forward Silvio De Sousa. The 6-foot-9, 250 pound senior averaged 11.1 points and 7 rebounds per game with the Mocs this season, and averaged over a block per game in his senior season.
His physicality should match up well with Cockburn, and basketball fans are already salivating at the prospect of the two doing battle down low throughout the game.
An X-Factor for Illinois?
Even though he’s been coming off the bench for most of the season, Andre Curbelo has still been used extensively by Brad Underwood, averaging 19.2 minutes per game and averaging 8.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per contest.
His production has been up-and-down throughout the season, and Illini fans got the full experience during Friday’s loss to Indiana. He did haul down 10 rebounds during a tightly-contested game with the Hoosiers, but he only went 1-of-7 from the field and 3-of-7 from the free throw line in the losing effort.
He also has a tendency to turn the ball over at times, with four turnovers in wins over Michigan and Iowa to wrap up the regular season for the Illini. His shooting down the stretch has been rough for Illinois, as he has made just six of his last 24 shot attempts and two of his last 13 3-point attempts.
Curbelo will need to take care of the basketball and choose his shots carefully if he’s going to help Illinois take advantage of their depth against the Mocs on Friday.