Illinois and Arkansas are in a race to find their “A” game entering a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday afternoon.
Preseason Top 10 Arkansas (20-13) will try to recapture the magic of its 2022 NCAA Tournament run while the Fighting Illini (20-12) are fixed on getting to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.
Arkansas beat No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in the 2022 tournament, reaching the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. Winning Thursday would bring a matchup with West Region No. 1 seed Kansas unless No. 16 seed Howard stuns the Jayhawks.
In 2021, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman and the Razorbacks were limited by Baylor and key big man Matthew Mayer, who is averaging 12.8 points and 5.5 rebounds for Illinois this season.
“Certainly Illinois is really well-coached. They have some guys that we’ve played before, like Terrence Shannon, who was at Texas Tech. And obviously Matthew Mayer from Baylor,” Musselman said. “They’ve got some really good transfers. It’s an excellent shot-blocking team. But anybody from the Big Ten that qualifies for the NCAA Tournament is a really good team.”
Confidence might be stunted for Arkansas with losses in four of its past five games, but that stretch includes a close call at overall top seed Alabama (86-83 score).
Illinois bounced in and out of the Top 25 rankings this season. Ranked 23rd in the preseason poll, Illinois bagged huge neutral-court wins over UCLA and Texas prior to conference play before inconsistency became the norm for the Fighting Illini.
A 22-point loss to Missouri — which split two games with Arkansas — in December, two double-digit losses to Indiana and three losses to Penn State prove the countercurrent can be unstoppable with this Illinois crew.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood told his team Sunday night to throw out the negative remnants of the season and focus on the opportunity, reminding his group that North Carolina was in the national championship game last March after limping through January and February.
He’ll lean on Mayer and Shannon, who was in the Sweet 16 last season with the Red Raiders. Shannon leads the team in scoring at 17.1 points per game.
“It’s a season of opportunity. It’s a season of speed bumps – good things, bad things – yet there was a lot more good because we’re in this thing again. We get to go play another game to show everybody what we’re capable of and what we can be,” Underwood said.
Athleticism isn’t the issue for either side, but shooting has been anywhere from erratic to outlandish. Illinois has a tendency to get “3 happy,” Underwood said, despite shooting only 30.9 percent from 3-point range.
The Razorbacks don’t have a regular contributor shooting 35 percent or better from long distance. Explosive freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. played in only 14 games due to injury but rounded into form late in the season with 24 points at Alabama (Feb. 25) and 25 points against Kentucky (March 4).
Arkansas is 0-5 all-time against Illinois, most recently meeting in 2004.
–Field Level Media