How far will Illinois basketball go? Here are NCAA tournament predictions

·6 min read

The Illinois Fighting Illini are once again in the NCAA tournament.

The Illini (22-9) earned the No. 4 seed in the South region of the NCAA tournament and open play at 5:50 p.m. Friday in Pittsburgh as a 7.5-point favorite against the No. 13-seeded Chattanooga Mocs (27-7), champions of the Southern Conference.

Here's what some national commentators are saying about the matchup and the Illini chances in the tournament:

Illinois vs Chattanooga basketball: How to watch on TV, live stream, betting odds, notes

Seth Davis of The Athletic

Moments after the brackets were released, Seth Davis of The Athletic said on the CBS selection show that Chattanooga would upset the Illini in the first round.

"Let me be clear, the Chattanooga Mocs are going to the Sweet Sixteen," Davis said on Sunday. "I think it pairs up well for them."

Who else is picking Chattanooga?

David Kenyon of Bleacher Report sees Chattanooga over Illinois as the biggest first-round upset in the South bracket

"To beat Illinois, it's crucial to win the rebounding battle. So far, the Illini are 2-7 when corralling less than 50 percent of available misses," Kenyon wrote. "Chattanooga ranks 35th in total rebound rate and is also 302nd in tempo, per KenPom. Control the glass, slow the pace and the Mocs should have a chance."

Zach Braziller of The New York Post took a look at the South bracket and also has the Illini on "upset watch."

"The Illini are not playing their best basketball entering the tournament, 4-3 in their last seven games, and the wins have all been narrow victories," Braziller wrote. "Chattanooga may be feeling like a team of destiny, after David Jean-Baptiste’s prayer was answered in the Southern Conference title game, and former Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa may be able to at least slow down Kofi Cockburn inside."

Rob Cassidy of Rivals.com says Chattanooga is the most likely seed lower than No. 11 to pull off the first-round upset.

"[I]’ve been a Chattanooga guy all season, so I’ll stick with the 13th-seeded Mocs here," Cassidy said. "This is a veteran-led bunch armed with the best SoCon player since Steph Curry in Malachi Smith and a guy with elite, high-major experience in Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa

"Add in the fact that Illinois is coming off of a less-than-impressive performance in a Big Ten tournament loss to Indiana, and I could see Lamont Paris’ team pulling this off."

CBS Sports

The team of writers covering college basketball for CBS Sports largely is optimistic about the Illini — aside from one.

Of the nine CBS writers who turned in brackets, one picked Illinois to lose in the first round, one picked them in the Final Four, two in the Elite Eight and other five in the Sweet 16.

Kevin Flaherty of 247Sports.com was the lone CBS expert to pick Chattanooga over Illinois.

"Asking Illinois to make any sort of deep run seems like a tough bet to make, a rough outcome for a team that won a share of the Big Ten regular season title and has the pieces to make a run with different matchups," Flaherty wrote at 247Sports.com "Make no mistake: Illinois has the roster to reach the Final Four. But that’s an awfully tough row to hoe."

Meanwhile, senior writer Matt Nordlander has the Illini headed to the Big Easy before losing to Kansas in the national semifinals.

"I've maintained the entire season that teams as low as the 4-line are good enough to make it to New Orleans," Nordlander wrote. "I'll stick with that and go with Big Ten co-champs of the regular season Illinois, which is one of the best 4-seeds in recent memory."

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Sporting News

Chattanooga guard David Jean-Baptiste, second from right, holds the championship trophy with teammates to celebrate their win over Furman in an NCAA college basketball championship game for the Southern Conference tournament, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Asheville, N.C. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)
Chattanooga guard David Jean-Baptiste, second from right, holds the championship trophy with teammates to celebrate their win over Furman in an NCAA college basketball championship game for the Southern Conference tournament, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Asheville, N.C. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

The Sporting News overall likes the Illini to make the second weekend — but the love stops there.

Experts Elliot Pohnl, Mike DeCourcy, Ryan Fagan and Bill Bender all see the Illini winning two games before bowing out to top seed Arizona in the Elite Eight.

The same goes for Billy Witz of the New York Times, who also picks the Illini to lose to Arizona in the Sweet 16.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi

ESPN bracket guru loves the story of Chattanooga, which started out championship week with a buzzer-beating win over Fordham in the Southern Conference championship game.

"But I don't like the matchup against Illinois," Lunardi said, "The SoCon champions are done after a terrific year, but glad to see them in the big dance."

In fact, Lunardi likes the Illini a lot. He joins play-by-play voice Matt Martucci as the only two of ESPN's 54 experts to pick Illinois to make the Final Four.

NCAA.com

Andy Katz of NCAA.com, like many, has Illinois winning its first two games before bowing out to Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Andy Wittry of NCAA.com also likes the Illini.

"Illinois' most recent showing wasn't a good one — a 65-63 loss to the Big Ten tournament's No. 9 seed, Indiana — but the Illini were the No. 1 seed for a reason," Wittry wrote. "Junior Kofi Cockburn is one of the most dominant players in the entire field."

Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) high-fives Illinois Fighting Illini guard Andre Curbelo (5) during the men’s Big Ten tournament game against the Indiana Hoosiers, Friday, March 11, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers won 65-63.
Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) high-fives Illinois Fighting Illini guard Andre Curbelo (5) during the men’s Big Ten tournament game against the Indiana Hoosiers, Friday, March 11, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers won 65-63.

Speaking of Kofi ...

Betting guru Brad Evans had a "stat to remember" for fans of Illinois: the Mocs are 333rd in the country in two-point percentage over the last month — a number that should bode well for Cockburn inside.

What are betting experts saying?

There is a mixed bag among multiple betting sites, most of which say the Illini are safe bets to cover against Chattanooga, while also saying the Mocs are a good look on the money line.

Jeremy Cluff of the Arizona Republic does a good job of consolidating the betting side of the Illinois-Chattanooga matchup.

What about Dickie V?

Who better to close with than the iconic voice of college basketball himself, Dick Vitale?

While most of the experts see Illinois losing to top-seeded Arizona to open the second weekend, the Illini are getting some additional love from Dickie V.

Vitale has Illinois advancing to the Elite Eight before a loss to No. 3 seed Tennessee.

Wes Huett is Journal Star sports editor. Email him at whuett@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesHuett.

This article originally appeared on Journal Star: NCAA tournament predictions put Illinois basketball on upset alert