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A Q&A with a Chattanooga Mocs writer

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The Mocs are no slouch.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Pittsburgh Practice Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

To get a better feel for today’s matchup against the Mocs, we called upon the help of Bryant Baucom, a contributor over at Mid-Major Madness who has been following this team all year.

You can follow Bryant on Twitter at @Bryant_Baucom02.

The Champaign Room: On paper, a few things stand out about this Chattanooga team… It’s deep, it’s efficient inside the arc and Malachi Smith is a problem. Is that a fair assessment?

Bryant Baucom: That’s certainly a fair assessment for this Chattanooga team. Six different players have scored 20 or more points for the Mocs this season. They are one of the oldest teams in the country with college basketball’s oldest player in Josh Ayeni. They consistently play nine to 10 guys and only three starters average more than 30 minutes per game. The Mocs spread out their minutes and it’s a huge part of why they are successful in the clutch. Wearing them down is not a particularly effective strategy. This team is both deep and experienced, which is a successful combination at any level of college basketball.

The idea that the Mocs are consistent inside the arc is true. Their overall field goal percentage of 46.9 percent and then two-point field goal percentage of 53.9 percent both rank 41st in the country. This is skewed as they aren’t playing in the Big 10 like Illinois, but Chattanooga is a good shooting team. Both of these figures rank better than the Illini by a fair margin.

Malachi Smith has been a problem all season and that won’t change with a Power-5 opponent standing in his way. He has scored in double figures in all but three games this season. He’s pouring in 20.1 points per game on 51/42/83 splits. The real issue for Illinois is knowing who will step up alongside the SoCon Player of the Year. It’s important to note that Chattanooga averages just one point less per game (74.8) than the Illini (75.8). With a plethora of scorers, the Mocs can find ways to put points on the board even if one or two guys are struggling to find their shot. David Jean-Baptists tallies 14.7 points per game and Silvio DeSousa scores 11.1 points per contest.

TCR: What’s the temperature of this squad heading into the tournament? We all saw Jean-Baptiste’s wild buzzer beater against Furman to send the team to the dance. The Mocs are riding a five-game win streak into the dance, they’ve won 14 of their last 17. Is it safe to say the Mocs are hot right now?

BB: The Mocs are certainly hot right now. Of course if you look at their schedule, you won’t see a bunch of 20+ point victories in conference play, but Chattanooga knows how to finish games. Two of the three losses during the 17-game span were without DeSousa, who is a force in the SoCon, meaning they’ve only lost once at full strength over that span.

Earlier this season, the Mocs won on the road against VCU and the Siegel Center is a tough environment for anyone. This Chattanooga team led Murray State by three at the half in Kentucky and had the lead with 10 minutes left in the game. Of course their resume is not going to be eye-popping, but they are capable of competing and giving Illinois a run for their money.

The Mocs come into the Big Dance a top-100 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

TCR: Most Illinois fans are familiar with Silvio De Sousa. At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds he doesn’t quite have the size to bang around with Kofi Cockburn, but is he athletic enough to disrupt the All-American’s night?

BB: With someone of Kofi’s caliber not many, if any, big men can bang around and control him down low. I believe Lamont Paris knows this and so does DeSousa. They won’t look to stop him completely because it’s not possible, but they’ll look to do what they can to contain him. DeSousa has the experience against talented big men from his Big-12 days so he certainly knows what the task is at hand. He has the ability to disrupt Kofi and potentially keep him from having a monster night, but like I said, he is not being stopped. DeSousa’s athleticism will be the key to containing Kofi. Pushing him off the block will be a point of emphasis, particularly with the poor two-point defense the Mocs have had lately. Unfortunately, Chattanooga will need a lot more to go their way than DeSousa’s effort on Kofi.

TCR: What’s the recipe if the Mocs want to pull off the upset over the Illini on Friday night? Give me some betting advice. Do you like the Mocs covering +7.5?

BB: The recipe for Chattanooga to either win or stay in the game consists of three things: slowing the game down, getting to the free throw line, and their perimeter defense. According to KenPom, only nine teams in the Field of 68 have a slower adjusted tempo than Chattanooga at 64.6. During the regular season, this was good for 302nd in the country. The Mocs are most comfortable when playing at their own, slow pace. They’ve won 27 games and it’s no secret that their pace of play was a factor.

Getting to the free throw line is crucial for Chattanooga’s chances to knock off the Illini. Lamont Paris’ squad has the fifth-best free throw percentage of the Field of 68 at 76.6 percent. Illinois ranks 152nd in the country in fouls per game at 16.4. Taking advantage of this is crucial for the Mocs. When they get to the line, they make free throws. Getting to the bonus early in either half will be big in keeping the contest within one or two possessions.

The last key to the game for the Mocs is to guard the perimeter. They rank top 30 in the country in perimeter defense, allowing their opponents to shoot just 30 percent from beyond the arc. Illinois ranks 44th in the country at 36.7 percent from three. Forcing Illinois into tough shots from the perimeter can help make up for the size disadvantage for Chattanooga. Something has to give in this scenario and if the Mocs can hold the Illini to below their season average from beyond the arc, anything can happen. No recipe is going to be perfect, but these keys can help the Mocs cover and potential pull off the upset.

Ultimately, I think Chattanooga fails to cover, but keeps it close enough to threaten. They have the ingredients to test the Illini and take advantage of what makes them successful. There are obvious keys to the game that are out of the Mocs’ control, but these three keys are what they should focus on. The experience for the Mocs will prove valuable regardless of the outcome. I would not be surprised to see the game come down to Illinois hitting free throws in the final minutes.

TCR: Indulge us with a score prediction.

BB: Chattanooga is No. 333 in the country over the past month in two-point percentage defense. With Kofi Cockburn dominating the paint, the All-American should do what he has done all season long and feast. By no means are the Mocs an easy opponent and they absolutely can give the Illini a run for their money. However, I can’t find myself picking against a team who is motivated by a tough loss in the Big-10 tournament and last year’s upset to Loyola-Chicago. I expect the Mocs to keep it within striking distance in the first half, but the Illini will pull away in the second half.

Illinois 77, Chattanooga 67

Special thanks to Mid-Major Madness and Bryant Baucom once again for giving us some great insight ahead of Illinois’ first round matchup!