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TCR Staff Predictions: NCAA Tournament Opening Weekend

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Can the Illini get out of the first weekend for the first time since ‘05?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Rejc: Illinois defeats Chattanooga and Houston to advance to the Sweet 16

Just like last season, the committee did Illinois no favors with their seeding. Chattanooga will be a very tough team to beat, and if the Illini come out with the same energy that they had against Indiana last week, then a loss is almost assured. Kofi will put up around 20 points and 10 boards as usual against the Mocs, but at least one of Trent, Plummer, Grandison, or Curbelo will need to contribute much more meaningfully for the Illini to come out on top. I think that happens, and Illinois goes on to face Houston. The Cougars are something of an enigma since they’re just 1-4 against Q1 teams, and they haven’t played against a ranked team since they lost by one on the road to then-#9 Alabama in December. My hunch is that the speed and size of Illinois will take the Cougars by surprise and allow the Illini to advance.

Mihir Chavan: Illinois to the Sweet 16

The Mocs are an intriguing matchup. The sports analyst world and the betting world seem to be torn on the topic, with many big names choosing the Mocs over the Illini. The line has moved from Illinois -9 to Illinois -7.5, so money has been flowing toward the Mocs. But people have short memories and forget that Chattanooga needed a 40-foot three to beat Furman and win the SoCon over 2 weeks ago. The energy from that game has probably worn off and it comes down to the battle of rest vs. rust and Illinois wins that battle any time of day. Houston is on late vs UAB and should roll over the Blazers. Houston won the American easily, and have been on a hot streak as of late if Illinois is truly rested and Grandison is back. There should be no match for Illinois shot making abilities complementing All-American play by Kofi Cockburn. All signs point to a rematch against Arizona in the Sweet 16 next week.

Drew Pastorek: Illinois defeats Chattanooga & UAB, advances to Sweet 16

The Illini are in the toughest region and will go up against a solid UT-Chattanooga team in round one. But this ain’t 1997, and the Mocs don’t have Kofi Cockburn. Even if he’s double- or triple-teamed, Kofi will have a big influence on the game, freeing up open looks for Illinois’ long-range shooters.

I’m very torn about Houston; The Cougars reached the Final Four last year but did so without facing a single-digit seed, and got absolutely vaporized by Baylor in the semifinal. Past performance doesn’t indicate future performance, but Houston has very pre-2017 Gonzaga vibes to me – a team that wins a lot of games against meeker opponents but can’t go far once the competition stiffens. The American was not a very strong league this season, whereas Conference USA was incredibly competitive. The Blazers average more than 80 points per game and Jordan Walker is the type of impact scorer that can help a mid-major pull off some March mayhem. I’m leaning towards a UAB upset – what would the NCAA Tournament be without a 12 beating a 5?

Illinois plays the part of Houston this year and benefits from an early-round upset. Guard play usually dictates success in March. But the Illini have one of the top players in the country, and he just happens to be seven feet tall…and you can’t teach that.

Quentin Wetzel: Illinois defeats Chattanooga, loses to Houston in the Second Round

Guys, Houston scares me. The Cougars are ranked 5th in the country on KenPom, just as they were last year when they made their run to the Final Four. Illinois can beat them — I truly believe Illinois can beat anyone in the country — but I would be a little surprised with a win on Sunday. (That, of course, depends on Illinois and Houston both advancing past the first round. Mark me down as saying that Chattanooga and UAB don’t give either team a whole lot to worry about.) I do have hope, though, and it comes in the form of Andre Curbelo.

Houston’s made its money the last couple years with a defense full of freak athletes that fly around to the ball. As such, they typically trap ball screens, putting pressure on the ball-handler to make quick decisions often leading to turnovers. You know who’s good against traps and is great at making quick-decisions with the ball? Andre Curbelo. Now, there’s potential for disaster here, as there always is with Curbelo. He might just turn the ball over 10 times. But he might also break Houston’s defense like nobody else can. I have a theory that the better the opposing defense is, the more valuable Curbelo becomes. Houston has the best defense (11th on KenPom) Illinois has seen all year, so Sunday could put that theory to the test.

What worries me, and why I have a hard time picking Illinois to win, is that I hate this matchup for Kofi. Houston traps post-ups in addition to ball screens, and they trap on the catch. That makes the big man a passer, and while he’s improved as a passer from a year ago, I still want no part of Kofi throwing skip passes against Houston’s athletes. Even in pick and rolls, I don’t think this matchup is great for Kofi either. One of the best ways to beat a trap is to have the big man short roll to the elbow instead of all the way to the hoop, but that’s just not Kofi’s game. I do think Coleman Hawkins could be good on the short roll, but we haven’t used him in that role (no pun intended) all season so I’m skeptical that Underwood will roll out that look (ok, pun intended this time) on Sunday.

I still have Illinois making it to the second weekend in my bracket — I couldn’t bring myself to pick against the Illini this early. Here, I’m going with my head instead of my heart, and my head says Houston wins.

Benjamin Pekay: Illinois defeats Chattanooga, Houston, advance to Sweet 16

While the Illini face a tough test in Chattanooga, the Mocs have not been tested all season long and don’t have a victory over a tournament team. Although the game will be close, the Illini will do enough to slow down Malachi Smith and extend their lead with about ten minutes left. Kofi will have a monster game and Trent will step up to the occasion. Next up will be Houston. Although Houston is ranked high statistically, they don’t have a win over a top 25 team and lost to Alabama by 1 point in December. If the shots are falling, the Illini should win. Houston doesn’t have anyone who can match Kofi physically and the Illini are more athletic. Plummer will have a big game and Kofi will be dominant.