We've finally reached March on the calendar. The winter snow is melting, the temperatures are starting to get warmer, and spring is nearly here. This also means that it's time for March Madness. The 2022 NCAA Tournament begins this week, and among the first-round matchups is an unlikely pairing. The Illinois Fighting Illini (22-9) will meet the Chattanooga Mocs (27-7) in Pittsburgh in South Region play.
Both teams took different paths to get there. Illinois was not only a favorite to only reach the Tournament, but also to win the Big Ten. But after losing three of their seven games in February, the Illini needed to rally by winning their final three regular-season games — and they got some help with Purdue and Wisconsin slightly stumbling down the stretch, just to share the title with the Badgers.
Illinois was awarded the No. 1 seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis but was upset by Indiana in the quarterfinals. The Illini's resume was more than strong enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it's not the entry point the team was hoping for.
Chattanooga dominated the Southern Conference by going 14-4 in league play and then defeated The Citadel, Wofford, and Furman in consecutive days in Asheville, North Carolina, to win the SoCon Tournament. With it came the automatic bid as the Mocs will make their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2016.
Next up is a battle-tested Illinois team that is in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row and 32nd time overall. As a No. 1 seed last year, the Illini were upset in the second round by Cinderella Loyola Chicago, so you know they don't want the same thing to happen.
Chattanooga has faced only one other team in this year's field of 68, losing 87-76 at Murray State (No. 7 seed in the East Region) on Dec. 18. The Mocs haven't faced a Big Ten team since 2019 when they lost to Michigan, but this won't be the first time these two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament.
In 1997, Chattanooga, as a No. 14 seed, upset No. 6 Illinois 75-63 before bowing out in the Sweet 16 to No. 10 Providence. So Friday also represents an opportunity for the Illini to get some March payback.
South Region: No. 13 Chattanooga Mocs (27-7) vs. No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illini (22-9)
Time: Friday, March 18 at 6:50 p.m. ET
Where: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh)
Spread: Illinois -7.5
Keys for Chattanooga
Silvio De Sousa (11.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg) and Avery Diggs (26 total rebounds since Feb. 7) will need to show up in a big way as they will be going up against consensus All-American Kofi Cockburn, a seven-footer. Guards Malachi Smith (17th in the nation with 20.1 ppg) and David Jean-Baptiste (made 22-of-59 field goals in his last five games) also will need to do their parts if the Mocs hope to match Illinois' firepower and pull off the upset. Chattanooga averages around 73 points per game, but it will take more than that to outscore Illinois.
Illinois has been inconsistent recently, going just 4-3 over its last seven games, but one common theme has been they have all been close contests. Each of these games was decided by eight or fewer points. So if the Mocs can find a way to stick around, they may have a chance.
Keys for Illinois
As they've done all season, the Illini will need to keep leaning on the foursome of Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, and Jacob Grandison. Cockburn is the only Divison I player averaging both 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and he figures to be a handful for Chattanooga, whose tallest player is Diggs at 6-foot-10. Frazier does a little of everything, leading Illinois in both assists (4.1 per game) and steals (1.3) while chipping in 12.1 points per game. Plummer (14.8 ppg) is second to Cockburn in scoring, with Grandison also averaging double digits (10.3 ppg) and leading the team in minutes (34.7 per game).
One of the keys to a deep run by the Illini is consistent contributions from the rest of the roster. Guards Da'Monte Williams (5.0 rpg, 2.6 apg) and André Curbelo (8.1 ppg, 3.2 apg), as well as forward Coleman Hawkins (5.8 ppg, 4.2 RPG), are key members of the regular rotation.
Illinois is 42nd nationally in scoring at 75.8 points per game and will be going up against a Mocs team that held opponents to 66 per contest. Obviously, quality of competition needs to be considered here, but the Illini also aren't coming into this game clicking on all cylinders either.
Yes, Chattanooga has the advantage over Illinois when it comes to NCAA Tournament matchups. But that was one game and it happened way back in 1997. Only one player on either team, Chattanooga's Josh Ayeni, was even alive then — and he's the oldest player in college basketball. Walk down memory lane aside, the Mocs are making their first Big Ten appearance in some time and will undoubtedly be excited to be on this stage. Illinois was here last year and knows all too well how it feels to lose to the underdog. This game may be closer than people are expecting, but the Illini are going to make sure Chattanooga is one and done.
Prediction: Illinois 78, Chattanooga 72
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.