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Illini seeded fourth, will face Chattanooga on Friday in NCAA tourney

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Iowa Illinois Basketball

Brad Underwood has coached Illinois into the NCAA Tournament.

Trent Frazier and Coleman Hawkins wore sunglasses to their news conference Sunday after getting the word Illinois had earned a No. 4 seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament, in which they’ll take on 13th-seeded Chattanooga in a first-round game on Friday in Pittsburgh.

It is to begin at at 5:50 p.m. and be televised on TNT.

But they weren’t doing a star turn. Coach Brad Underwood explained the two had pinkeye.

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

Chattanooga (27-7) won the Southern Conference regular-season title and barely got into the NCAA tourney, with a buzzer-beating overtime win over Furman in the title game of the SoCon Tournament.

“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.”

The teams met once before, in the second round of the 1997 tournament, and the Mocs pulled off a 75-63 upset win over coach Lon Kruger’s team.

“We can guarantee you that history will not repeat,” Cockburn said. “We’re dialed in right now. … I highly doubt that issue will repeat itself.”

Illinois (22-9), which earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with Wisconsin, was listed as a 7-point favorite for their game Friday when the opening pointspreads were posted, and figure 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 a No. 1 seed last year before losing to Loyola-Chicago in the second round in Indianapolis.

Some experts are high on Chattanooga, including CBS analyst Seth Davis, who predicted the Mocs would advance to the Sweet 16. Malachi Smith, a sophomore guard from Belleville, leads the Mocs in scoring with an average of 20.1 points, while David Jean-Baptiste, who hit the game-winner against Furman, averages 14.7 points.

Underwood said he didn’t pay attention to Davis’ comment but added: “Anytime someone doesn’t believe in you, you’d want to try and prove them wrong. But that’s a small piece of this.”

Hawkins shrugged it off.

“I already know there are going to be a lot of people betting against us,” Hawkins said. “A lot of people had hope in us last year, and we didn’t have the outcome we wanted. But there are always going to be people that don’t believe in us. We’re not going to really 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 a key to the Illini’s chances to advance far in the tournament. The Illini guards shot poorly and didn’t get him the ball enough inside in the loss to Indiana on Friday in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

“You can make yourself legendary in March, and he’s got that opportunity,” Underwood said of Cockburn.

The Illini’s reaction to the seeding was relatively muted.

“It was definitely a business thing,” Cockburn said. “We’ve been to the tournament last year, and we know how that feeling was, so we’re trying not to get too high right now. We’re 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’ve felt in a long time,” Underwood said.

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