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Houston Cougars vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Prediction: NCAA Tournament Second Round Preview

Houston Cougars vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Prediction: NCAA Tournament Second Round Preview

Sunday's slate gets started with the Cougars and Fighting Illini facing off in Pittsburgh

Houston may be entering Sunday's Round of 32 matchup against Illinois as the lower seed, but they're by no means the underdogs.

In fact, oddsmakers have the Cougars as 4.5-point favorites. 

Houston was drastically under-seeded despite reaching the Final Four last season and winning the AAC regular-season and conference tournament championships this year. Of course, they're missing star guard Marcus Sasser, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in late December, but the Cougars sit third in KenPom's rankings.

While Houston cruised to a 14-point first-round victory, Illinois barely survived a 54-53 victory over No. 13 Chattanooga that included two missed potential game-winners. But the Big Ten regular-season champions remain one of the more dangerous teams around thanks to All-American center Kofi Cockburn.

The winner of this game will advance to the Sweet 16, where they will face either No. 1 Arizona or No. 9 TCU on Friday.

South Region: No. 5 Houston Cougars (305) vs. No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illini (23-9)

Time: Sunday, March 19 at 12:10 p.m. ET
Where: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh)
Spread: Houston -4.5

Keys for Houston

Although Houston is one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation at 76 points per game, the Cougars thrive when slowing things down. They have one of the slowest paces at just 65.8 possessions per 40 minutes (T-311th).

The good news is that they're also very efficient, rarely turning the ball over (11.2 per game, 52nd) and pulling in plenty of offensive rebounds (13.3 per game, eighth). Patrolling the boards could be difficult, though, against Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, who is the only player in the nation to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

In Marcus Sasser's absence, guards Kyler Edwards (13.9 ppg) and Jamal Shead (9.5 ppg) have picked up the scoring, and senior forward Fabian White is the top 3-point threat at 39.3 percent. One of Houston's big strengths is ball movement; the Cougars rank 11th nationally with 16.8 assists per game.

Keys for Illinois

You really can't mention him enough; Illnois' chances hinge greatly on Cockburn's effectiveness. Cockburn has largely avoided foul trouble lately, playing 33 or more minutes in his last five games, but Illinois is just 6-5 when Cockburn plays less than 30 minutes, including 1-3 in their last four games.

That's not to say that the Illini lacks offense elsewhere. Illinois is a strong 3-point shooting team (9.0 made per game, 39th; 36.3 percent, 52nd) led by Alfonso Plummer (41.2 percent) and Jacob Grandison (41.0).

Facing a tough Houston defense will be quite the challenge, though. The Cougars have held opponents to the lowest field-goal percentage in the nation (37.6 percent) and the 10th-lowest 3-point percentage (29.0 percent).

Final Analysis

Even without Sasser, Houston remains one of the more dangerous teams in March Madness. The Cougars' stifling defense should be enough to get Houston back to the Sweet 16. 

Prediction: Houston 71, Illinois 64