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Chattanooga looks to keep its March magic alive against Illinois

Chattanooga and Illinois open Friday night’s slate at 6:50 p.m. EST on TNT

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Southern Conference Basketball Men’s Championship - Furman v UT Chattanooga
David Jean Baptiste is averaging 14.7 points per game this season.
Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Where to Watch

Location: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Tip Time: 6:50 p.m. EST

Television/Streaming: TNT/March Madness Live

DraftKings Betting Line: Illinois -8, O/U 135.5

The Chattanooga Mocs have already given us the best moment of March. Feast your eyes on this sequence…

For David Jean-Baptiste and company, that is just one of a few great moments in this historic season for Chattanooga. The Mocs clinched their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016 while winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles for the 11th time in school history. It was a long time coming.

You could see the signs pointing towards a strong season after Chattanooga beat VCU at the Siegel Center – a place that some people say is more life-altering than a 10-day trip to Europe – in late November. Malachi Smith scored 20 points in that game including the game-winning jump shot with a second remaining. Although he averaged 16 points per game a season ago, most of the country began to learn who he was after that game.

One of the best guards in the nation, he would follow that up with 20-point performance after 20-point performance, scoring single digits only one time since the start of December. It’s not like he was just jacking up shots either as he finished the regular season with a 50.5% shooting clip.

Alongside him is that guy who made the stellar shot to send Chattanooga back to the Big Dance: David Jean-Baptiste. He and Smith play nearly 80% of the game, rarely seeing time off the floor.

DJB, as they call him in Tennessee, is scoring 14.7 points per game, which included a 20-point performance to open the SoCon Tournament against The Citadel. The senior has been through about everything but an NCAA Tournament in a Mocs jersey, once entering his name in the transfer portal only to come back to lead them to this moment.

The Mocs frontcourt is impressive too as Darius Banks is another player who never seems to leave the floor, and Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa has been excellent since his return in the final week of the regular season.

De Sousa scored a combined 29 points in the final two rounds of the SoCon Tournament and his double-double in the championship may have been what pushed them over the mark.

For the Mocs to win this game against the Illini, De Sousa will have to use his 6-foot-9-inch frame to shut down Illinois big man, Kofi Cockburn. He’s shown that he can play significant minutes down low, helping Kansas make its run to the 2018 Elite Eight.

Can they pull off the upset?

Prediction

I think this will be a scrap of a game. The Illini did not look that impressive in its Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Indiana, and I think some of that rust will carry over. It should be neck-and-neck throughout as it is a pretty even matchup. Ultimately, I think that Illinois pulls out the slight 65-63 victory. It could be a toss-up, and come down to whoever has the ball on the last possession though. Chattanooga reminds me a lot of Rutgers with whom the Illini split the season series.