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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Illinois is the No. 4 seed in the South Region. The Illini will play No. 13 Chattanooga on Friday in Pittsburgh.

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Trent Frazier and Coleman Hawkins wore sunglasses at their news conference Sunday after learning that Illinois had been ranked No. 4 in the NCAA Tournament South Region, where they will face No. 13-ranked Chattanooga in a first-round game at 5:50 p.m. Friday in Pittsburgh (TNT).

But they weren’t doing a star turn. Trainer Brad Underwood explained that they both had conjunctivitis.

Both should be fine for the start of the tournament, as the Illini hope to recover from their quick exit in the Big Ten Tournament.

Chattanooga (27-7) won the Southern Conference regular season title and barely entered the tournament with an overtime victory over Furman in the SoCon Tournament title game.

“I personally don’t care who it is,” center Kofi Cockburn said. “We were the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten, let’s not forget that.”

The teams met once before, in the second round of the 1997 tournament, with the Mocs recording an upset 75-63 victory over Lon Kruger’s team.

“We can guarantee you that history will not repeat itself,” Cockburn said. “We are scarred right now. … I very much doubt that this problem will be repeated.”

Illinois (22-9), which won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with Wisconsin, will enter the opening game as a prohibitive favorite and is set to face No. 5 seed Houston in the second round. If the Illini advance, Arizona, the top seed in the South, would be a likely obstacle in the Sweet 16 in San Antonio.

Illinois was the No. 1 seed last year before losing to Loyola in the second round in Indianapolis.

Some pundits are excited about Chattanooga, including CBS analyst Seth Davis, who predicted the Mocs would advance to the Sweet 16. Malachi Smith, a sophomore shooting guard from Belleville, Ill., leads the Mocs in scoring with an average of 20.1 points, while David Jean-Baptiste, who scored the game-winning goal against Furman, is averaging 14.7 points.

Underwood said he didn’t pay attention to Davis’s comment, but added: “Any time someone doesn’t believe in you, you want to try to prove them wrong. But that’s a small part of it.”

Hawkins shrugged.

“I already know there will be a lot of people betting against us,” Hawkins said. “A lot of people had hope for us last year and we didn’t get the result we wanted. But there will always be people who don’t believe in us. We’re not really going to focus on that. We’re just going to keep it one game at a time and hopefully prove anyone who doubts us wrong.”

Cockburn, a Wooden Award candidate, will be key to Illini’s chances of advancing far into the tournament. Illini guards shot poorly and didn’t get the ball enough in Friday’s loss to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.

“You can become legendary in March, and he has that opportunity,” Underwood said of Cockburn.

Illini’s reaction to the seeding was relatively quiet.

“It was definitely a business thing,” Cockburn said. “We were in the tournament last year and we know what that feeling was like, so we’re trying not to get too high at the moment. We are prepared to go out there and play hard and compete at the highest level.”

Underwood said his team was “too tentative” in its loss to Indiana, when the Illini missed 10 layups and three dunks while playing in their usual flashy style. That can’t happen again if they hope to get to New Orleans for the Final Four.

“I feel better about our basketball team right now than I have in a long time,” Underwood said.

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