PITTSBURGH (WCIA) — Less than 24 hours after Illinois rallied to come from behind to beat Chattanooga in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Illini are already on to Houston. Such is life in the Big Dance, the turnaround is quick between games in the same weekend. After squeaking by the Mocs 54-53 in a game the Illini (23-9) led for all of 25 seconds and didn’t take their first lead until there was less than a minute to play, the players say are settled in to what to expect.
“That first game in the NCAA tournament is always a tough one,” Illinois center Kofi Cockburn said. “It might sound cliche but once you get that first win or you get past that first game, things don’t become easier but you’re more prepared for it mentally and you know what to expect.”
“Knowing that we’re playing tomorrow is definitely a good feeling knowing we have a chance to do a little bit better than we did last year and move on to the Sweet Sixteen so definitely going to give us a little fire and we’re going to come out ready to play tomorrow,” Illinois sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo said.
And that was the biggest issue against the Mocs, who had the Illini on upset alert from the start opening the game on a 20-6 run.
“I thought we played tentative, I thought we played not to make mistakes and you can’t do that,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “We could not play any worse offensively and to find a way to win a game is a pretty gratifying feeling so I think they feel like they believe in what we do defensively.”
After a tough offensive performance, the Illini will be tested even more against 5th seeded Houston. The Cougars have the nation’s best field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 37 percent from the field. Overall KenPom has them No. 3 in the nation in adjusted efficiency. Coming off a Final Four run last year, the Illinois knows its in for a tough test.
“We know their physicality and that’s why this match-up is going to be a good one,” Cockburn said. “That’s how we play, we play with toughness and tenacity and the tougher team is going to win tomorrow, that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
The one thing the Cougars (30-5) have not seen though is a player like Cockburn and Cougs coach Kelvin Sampson has plenty of respect for the First Team All-American.
“There’s nobody comprobable to Kofi so we didn’t play anybody,” Sampson said. “Kofi’s a lot closer to Shaq than guys we play against. You know they got a team that can go a long way in the tournament too, they’re a good team.”
Illinois and Houston tip-off at 11:10 a.m. CT on Sunday morning in a game that can be seen on WCIA 3.