On Friday, Illinois and Chattanooga will face off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Illinois, the No. 4 seed in the South region, is led by two-time First Team All-American Kofi Cockburn, who has been one of the most dominant inside players in the entire nation over the past two years.
The Illini had high hopes coming into this season, and for the most part had a very successful regular season run. They currently sit at 22-9 on the year, with their last loss coming to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.
Cockburn stands at 7-feet tall, weighs 285 pounds, and is one of, if not the strongest bigs in the nation. He is averaging 21.1 points per game along with 10.6 rebounds, ranking in the top 12 in the nation in both stats.
However, with Cockburn dominating inside, crafty guard Andre Curbelo running the point, as well as a plethora of veteran shooters, what is the key for the Illini to make a deep run this March?
“I think it starts with Illinois continuing to try to overcome the early-season injury to Andre Curbelo, who had been projected to be their starting point guard.” bracketologist Mike DeCourcy told PSN. “He was injured early in the year and missed about six weeks. It’s like losing a quarterback in football. All that time, if you have Aaron Rodgers, and he’s out for six weeks, then you have to play with Jordan Love for six weeks. It’s a different chemistry. Everything is different. There is only one Aaron Rodgers, and believe me, there is only one Andre Curbelo in college basketball. He’s the most creative player in this tournament by far.”
ANDRE CURBELO ARE YOU SERIOUS WITH THIS PASS? pic.twitter.com/SiMao0wscS
— Troy Machir (@TroyMachir) March 11, 2022
“His ability to see passes, to make passes, to put spin on the ball in his entry passes so they catch Kofi Cockburn just right,” DeCourcy continued. “He didn’t have quite the amount of time to polish his ability and to make sure what worked and what didn’t that everybody else did. Illinois had to move on without him for all of that time, and they put Trent Frazier at the point. He did a really nice job, but he’s a different payer than Andre is. He’s not creative. He’s really more of a shooting guard that can handle the ball. He does his best, he makes the right passes, but he doesn’t invent passes.”
Curbelo played in just 17 games this season, averaging under 20 minutes per game. However, despite the low production this season, DeCourcy thinks that with an up-to-speed Curbelo, the Illini can become a completely different team.
“It’s a different vibe when Andre is on the floor, and they are trying to find him the right role in that circumstance,” he said. “They’ve done well, but it hasn’t been outstanding. If it ever quite all the way clicks, they can beat just about anybody in this field.”
Chattanooga, the Southern Conference champions, enter this game with a 27-7 record. To win the SoCon title last week, guard David Jean-Baptiste drained a historic, buzzer-beating, 30-foot three pointer as time expired.
— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) March 8, 2022
Jean-Baptiste averages 14.6 points per game, which is second to guard SoCon Player of the Year Malachi Smith’s 20.1.
As a team, the Mocs score an average of 74.7 points per game, shooting 47% from the field, 35% from three-point range, and 76% from the free-throw stripe.
The game will be televised on TNT, with tip off set for 6:50 p.m.
According to Draft Kings, the current spread is Illinois (-8), with the over/under set at 135.5 points. The Illini are heavy favorites, and if you want to bet on them outright, the moneyline is set at Illinois (-350).