The Illinois Fighting Illini, co-champions of the Big Ten in the regular season, will face the Chattanooga Mocs in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night in Pittsburgh.
The Illini, who lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, were given a fourth seed by the committee, while the Southern Conference champion Mocs were given a 13th seed in the tournament.
How to watch the game
Illinois and Chattanooga will start from Pittsburgh at 5:50 p.m. Friday, and the game will be broadcast on TNT.
The winner of the game will face the winner of Friday’s game between Houston and UAB, which will take place at 12:15 p.m.
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 in a tough Big Ten regular season, they were quickly ejected from the conference tournament, upset by the Indiana Hoosiers in their quarter-final.
Illinois had several chances to win the game, but a poor free throw shot ultimately didn’t help matters as the Illini shot 15 of 23 from the charity strip in a two-point loss to the Hoosiers. .
The loss gave 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 enter the NCAA Tournament by the skin of its teeth, securing an overtime game-winning three-pointer from David Jean-Baptiste to claim the Southern Conference crown.
Prior to that remarkable finish, the Mocs had a strong regular season, posting the best record in the South and going 27-7 on the season.
They were led on the scoring front by their formidable guarding duo, 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 game in 32 games.
Led by this dynamic duo, the Mocs have won 14 of their last 17 games to go dancing, and they hope to make some noise in their showdown with the Illini.
Dynamic Intermediate Match
Illini fans know of Cockburn’s exploits in the paint, and he will be key 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 one block per game. His dominant presence at the bottom has been a deciding factor in several games this season, and he hopes to continue against a Chattanooga team that has struggled to contain offenses inside the three-point line this season.
Even still, Cockburn will have serious opposition in the paint in the form of striker 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 more than a block per game in his senior season.
His physique should match Cockburn well, and basketball fans are already salivating at the prospect of the two battling low throughout the game.
An X factor for Illinois?
Despite being off the bench for most of the season, Andre Curbelo was still heavily used by Brad Underwood, averaging 19.2 minutes per game and averaging 8.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
His production has been up and down throughout the season, and Illini fans got the full experience in Friday’s loss to Indiana. He had 10 rebounds in a tightly contested game with the Hoosiers, but 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 around at times, with four turnovers in wins over Michigan and Iowa to wrap up the Illini’s regular season. His shot on the stretch has been tough for Illinois, as he’s only made six of his last 24 shot attempts and two of his last 13 3-point attempts.
Curbelo will have to take care of the basketball and pick his shots carefully if he wants to help Illinois capitalize on their depth against the Mocs on Friday.