Illinois men’s basketball faces Houston in second round of NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh

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Photo courtesy of @IlliniMBB Twitter

Guard Da’Monte Williams chest bumps forward Omar Payne during the first round game of the NCAA Tournament against Chattanooga on Friday. The Illini will be up against Houston for the second round on Sunday.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

The No. 4-seed Illinois men’s basketball team will play No. 5-seed Houston in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 11:10 a.m. on Sunday. The winner will play in the Sweet 16, and the Illini last reached the Sweet 16 in 2005.

Illinois was nearly upset in the first round, scraping by with a 54-53 win against No. 13 Chattanooga. Houston cruised through its first round matchup against UAB, winning 82-68.

The Illini were out-rebounded by the Mocs in round one despite getting 13 rebounds from junior center Kofi Cockburn alone. At one point this season, the Illini were the top rebounding team in the country.

“Kofi can’t just be satisfied with getting 10 when there’s 20 that he can get,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “Coleman Hawkins has been great. He’s helped us, but we’ve got to get more out of our guards. Houston is number one in the country at offensive rebounding missed threes: They get almost 40% of them back, and they score on half of them. It can’t be just we expect Kofi to rebound for us.”

The Cougars have appeared in the last two Sweet 16s after failing to do so since 1984. Led by seniors Kyler Edwards and Fabian White Jr., Houston won the regular season AAC championship and defeated Memphis to win the AAC tournament title.

The Cougars finished four sports above the Illini in the final regular-season Associated Press Top 25 poll at No. 15.

“They’re a team that’s going to fly around, play hard and we’re going to match it and do the same,” said fifth-year senior guard Da’Monte Williams.

The Illini will certainly be ready for a battle on Sunday. Nine players remain from the team that lost to Loyola Chicago in the second round last year. Prior to that loss, Illinois was riding the high of a blowout win against Drexel. This year was different, but their mindset remains the same.

“We enjoyed it; we celebrated it,” said sophomore guard Andre Curbelo. “Winning a March Madness game is a big time, so my mind is kind of all over the place. I wasn’t too excited just because it’s next-game mentality, but obviously I enjoyed the win. A win is a win, but next-game mentality.”

Curbelo struggled against Chattanooga in round one, scoring five points with four assists and six turnovers. When asked if the NCAA game balls, which are different from what Illinois used in Big Ten play, was noticeably different, Curbelo was firm.

“I don’t know about these guys, but for me as a point guard having the ball a lot, the ball kind of bounces differently from the other ones,” Curbelo said. “Big Ten is Nike and Adidas, and you come to a tournament and play with a different ball. It can affect you in some ways but once again, that was the first game, and we’re kind of getting used to it, so it should be fine for the next one.”

If Illinois were to lose to Houston on Sunday, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise. The Illini have struggled lately, and the Cougars have been hot. Three of the seven teams that have already clinched a Sweet 16 berth have been lower seeds.

“A lot of times you get anxious, you get nervous,”Cockburn said. “It’s the reality, you have teams losing  you have higher seeds losing the whole week before and you see that happening.”

 

@JonesChristianT

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