The Illinois Fighting Illini managed to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title before falling to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. The immediate loss in the conference tournament may have been disappointing for Illini fans, but the No. 4 seed in the South region sets up Illinois nicely for a potential run in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Of course, last season the Illini fell to Loyola-Chicago in a disappointing second round matchup when the No. 1 seeded Illinois squad was even better poised for a deep run.
But what can the Illini do this season? Let’s take a look at the bracket and what to expect.
Illinois draws the No. 13 seeded Chattanooga Mocs for the Round of 64 matchup Friday at 6:30 p.m. The Mocs went 27-7 overall and 14-4 in Southern Conference play en route to the league title. Chattanooga may have wracked up plenty of wins, but the team also went 1-2 versus quad 1 and 3-0 versus quad 2 teams as well. Meanwhile, Illinois went 6-6 versus quad 1 teams and 6-3 versus quad 2 teams.
Despite Chattanooga being the much lower seed, the Mocs do rank No. 70 overall in KenPom and host the No. 55 adjusted offense with the No. 93 adjusted defense. Illinois sits at No. 17 in the advanced statistics on KenPom with the No. 23 offense and No. 31 defense.
An upset certainly isn’t out of the question in this one and Illinois will need to play dialed in as a result. The Illini rank 44th in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, hitting 36.7 percent of shots from deep. However, Chattanooga ranks 25th in three-point field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 30 percent from deep. Illinois may be hard pressed on offense from the perimeter, but should be able to impose its will down low thanks to big man Kofi Cockburn as well.
If They Advance
Should Illinois avoid the unlikely upset, it would then advance to the Round of 32, where it would face off against either Houston or UAB. The Houston Cougars are the more likely opponent for the Illini. It also would be a tough draw considering the Cougars are ranked higher in KenPom (No. 5), as well as offensively (No. 10) and defensively (No. 11).
The Cougars went 29-5 this season and won the American Conference title with losses to just Wisconsin and Alabama in the non-conference, both games by a totla combined three points. Even if Kofi Cockburn can impose his will down low against a smaller Houston squad, the guard duo of Marcus Sasser (17.7 ppg) and Kyler Edwards (13.6 ppg) should prove a challenge for Illinois.
If Illinois can survive the first weekend, it would most likely face No. 1 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16 barring any upset by Seton Hall or TCU in the Round of 32. The Illini should be able to handle itself versus the Pirates and Horned Frogs, but will face a stiff challenge in the Wildcats.
From there, Illinois would most likely face Tennessee or Villanova should it advance to the Elite 8, but could also always potentially face Loyola-Chicago or Ohio State. The Ramblers have been one of the more consistent mid-majors this season and are no recent stranger to underdog Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini also fell to the Buckeyes in the lone regular season matchup between the teams. Villanova would pose a potential shootout from guard action, but would be unlikely to slow down Cockburn.
If the Illini can advance to the Final Four, it would most likely face Kansas or Auburn before a national title game matchup against a probably Gonzaga or Baylor.
Illinois has shown stints of dominance in its performance this season, but it has also shown an inability to finish at times as well. In a tournament where the stakes are win or go home, that can leave fans on edge with the nerves of being sent home anytime. However, the Illini have the talent to make a run this season as well.
Illinois should have the balance on offense to find an answer either from the perimeter or down low depending on its opponent. A skilled defense that can bring pressure and intensity won’t hurt, either, against some of the talent the team could face. A title game appearance certainly seems like the less improbable scenario, but if Illinois exits out in the first weekend this year then it should be considered a disappointment considering the draw.