On Friday, Illinois (22-9) will face Chattanooga (27-7), in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. These teams have met twice, including in 1997 when Chattanooga beat Illinois in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Chattanooga Mocs are coming off a buzzer-beater overtime victory against Furman in the SoCon championship. The Illini fell just short against Indiana in the Big Ten quarterfinals.
Let’s take a look at Chattanooga before this crucial tournament game.
Season So Far
Chattanooga had an impressive regular season with only four conference losses and has been at the top of the SoCon for the entire season. The Mocs have lost to Murray State and Belmont and beat VCU and Furman twice. They are a team that features seven transfers from D1 programs and play a slow brand of basketball as they ranked 302nd in adjusted pace. Just like Illinois, they play an inside-out offense, intending to get the ball into the paint and pass it out for a three. They will need to adjust their playing style against the physically and athletically superior Illini.
Chattanooga is led by sophomore Malachi Smith, who transferred from Wright State. He went to Belleville West High School in Illinois and played with Ohio State star E.J. Liddell. He averages 20 points and 6 rebounds and shoots an effective 41.5% from three. He is a playmaker and can attack from any place on the floor. Expect Da’Monte Williams to guard Smith for most of the game as he matches up best.
The Illini have had trouble stopping bigger guards such as Ohio State’s Malakai Branham and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, so Williams will need to limit Smith’s impact for the Illini to win.
Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa also plays a major role for the Mocs. If that name sounds familiar, in the 2020 Kansas-Kansas State game, Sousa lifted a chair and was suspended for 12 games during a brawl. He averages 11 points and 7 rebounds and played a vital role in the win over Furman in the SoCon championship. Kofi Cockburn will match up with De Sousa for most of the game. Expect De Sousa to use his quickness against Kofi, like Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis was able to do.
Another key player is David Jean-Baptiste, who averages 14.7 points. He is also effective from three, shooting 37%. In the conference championship, he hit the 40-foot buzzer-beater to send them to the tournament. Similarly, to Malachi Smith, he is also a playmaker who can take over the game for the Mocs. Trent Frazier will guard Baptiste for most of the game, as he matches up well and will hopefully finds ways to slow him down.
Unlike last season, The Illini are coming into the NCAA Tournament as a well-rested team. Overall, the Illini are more athletic and talented than the Mocs. Kofi needs to control the game and play an active role in the Illini’s offense, while Chattanooga will try to double him and hope the rest of the Illini miss shots.
The Illini will find themselves in trouble if they go through long stretches of not scoring. Frazier needs to improve his level of play and take over the game both on the offensive and defensive end as a leader.
To win this matchup, the Illini will need to play a complete game.