Survive and advance: What to make of Illinois' razor-thin win over Chattanooga
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.
Not to sound too repetitive, but that’s the best word to summarize Illinois’ performance against Chattanooga on Friday night in Pittsburgh. They ended up on the right side of a 54-53 rock fight to advance to the Round of 32, but there’s not much else Brad Underwood can find on the stat sheet that shows a favorable result for the Illini.
Illinois shot just 38.8% from the floor and converted on just 3-of-17 shots from 3-point range. Free throw shooting left something to be desired. The Illini ended the game with 2 fewer rebounds and 4 more turnovers than the Mocs.
“Survive and advance,” Underwood said after Illinois’ victory. “That’s the name of the game.”
In March, you’ll take wins any way you can get them. In this wild tournament, sometimes it takes a little luck to make a run at the Final Four. Illinois had its fair share on Friday night.
Usually, the kind of sloppy play seen on the floor against a quality mid-major program is the perfect recipe for an upset. Look no further than Illinois’ second-round loss to Loyola Chicago in the Round of 32 last season. The Illini played their ugliest brand of basketball of the season and were sent packing before the Sweet 16.
Friday looked eerily similar. Chattanooga brought the fight right out of the gate, building a 20-6 advantage through the first 11 minutes of the game.
“There’s no doubt who threw the first punch — or first three punches,” Underwood said.
Chattanooga’s strong start wasn’t limited to the first half, either. Despite Illinois’ late run in the final 20 minutes to make it a 33-29 game as the teams broke for recess, the Mocs scored the first 7 points of the second half to jump back ahead 40-29.
Illinois never threw in the towel.
Alfonso Plummer hit a pair of 3-points with over 12 minutes to play to help close the gap to just a 1-point game. Eventually, with 46 seconds to play, the Illini grabbed their first lead with 46 seconds left. Cockburn scored on a putback opportunity after a missed free throw from Coleman Hawkins.
Malachi Smith put Chattanooga back in front at 53-52 with a pair of free throws before Plummer drove to the basket, drew a foul and hit the game-winning free throws. Smith had two opportunities to win the game for the Mocs on the final possession, but his first shot was blocked by Hawkins and his second bounced off the rim.
Survive and advance, indeed.
For 39 minutes on Friday, Illinois’ performance against Chattanooga was like watching a rerun of Loyola-Chicago catastrophe last season. The biggest difference, obviously, was that Illinois came out on top. Despite the poor performance, Underwood and the Illini are heading to the Round of 32 with a chance to punch a ticket to the Sweet 16 on Sunday.
The good …
There are two ways to view Friday night’s win against Chattanooga, but we’ll stick with the good for now. Credit Illinois for finding a way to beat a quality mid-major team while playing its worst basketball of the year (with a healthy roster).
Every aspect of Illinois’ shooting performance was … poor, to put it nicely. The Illini were 19-of-49 and connected on just 3-of-17 from behind the 3-point line — all 3 makes coming from Plummer in the second half. Illinois didn’t find much success at the free throw line, making just 13-of-22.
With Hawkins and Cockburn both playing over 32 minutes, Illinois was outrebounded 43-41. The Illini ended the game with 14 turnovers. Yet they found a way to get it done.
It’s reflective of what Illinois has done throughout the course of the season.
Each of Illinois’ last 7 games have been decided by 8 points or less, with the Illini posting a 5-2 record. In January, it found a way to beat a ranked Michigan State team 56-55 without Cockburn and Andre Curbelo in the contest.
The Illini were B1G regular season champions for a reason. Maybe some of those games have been closer than they should’ve been, but they found ways to win.
Pulling through in those clutch moments — no matter how scary the first 39 minutes have been — is all that matters in the tournament.
… and the bad
Watching Friday’s performance and comparing it to a majority of the regular season, it’s hard not to think Underwood’s postseason demons might be rearing their ugly head again. He hasn’t exactly had much success this time of year — then again, he hasn’t had an abundance of opportunities.
Underwood’s teams have never gotten past the Round of 32. That includes stops at Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State and Illinois. This is the sixth year his squads have participated in March Madness.
Stephen F. Austin had a pair of first-round wins in 2014 and 2016 and was a one-and-done team in 2015. In Underwood’s lone season at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys lost their only March Madness game to Michigan.
We’ve already mentioned last year’s Loyola Chicago debacle — in which Illinois was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Underwood hasn’t been a college basketball head coach for a decade yet. Three of his tournament appearances came at the mid-major level, where reaching the Sweet 16 is nearly as impressive as a Final Four run. It’s probably still too early to say the Illinois head coach can’t get it done in March.
But when his teams have played so poorly in their last 3 appearances, isn’t it fair to wonder if there’s something in his approach that might hinder Illinois from progressing past the Round of 32? Friday night’s sloppy outing against Chattanooga certainly didn’t provide a boost of confidence for those in Champaign.
Right now, Illinois is still alive. That’s all that matters.
If the Illini flounder in the Round of 32 in back-to-back season — once as the B1G Tournament champion and the other as the conference’s regular-season winner — Underwood’s ability to get the job done in March is going to become a more popular topic of conversation.