NCAA Tournament primer: Scouting Arkansas' opening opponent and more
For a 3rd consecutive season, Arkansas is back in the NCAA Tournament under head coach Eric Musselman. After back-to-back regional final runs, the Razorbacks look to begin yet another journey following an up-and-down season.
Stumbling into the new calendar year, they dropped 4 straight in January before seemingly finding their footing once again. But the 20-13 Razorbacks limp into tournament play after closing the 2022-23 season with 4 losses in their past 5 games, and the Hogs must figure out how to win away from home (2-8) if they plan on any lengthy stay in the tournament.
The Razorbacks are slotted in the West Region as the No. 8 seed and will face No. 9 seed Illinois. They’ll tip off at 4:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Here’s a look at Arkansas’ opening opponent, an Illinois program which the Razorbacks have never beaten (0-5), and a prediction of how far it’ll advance in the NCAA Tournament:
This middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team squeezed into its 3rd consecutive NCAA Tournament, having bowed out in the 2nd round the past 2 years as a No. 4 and No. 1 seed.
At 20-12, Illinois still did enough to earn a bid despite falling in the Big Ten Tournament opener to Penn State. The Illini limp into the tournament having lost 3 of their past 4 games.
Top player: Junior guard Terrence Shannon
The team’s leading scorer, Shannon is a 1st-team All-Big Ten player averaging 17.1 points per game and a leader on the team with 1.3 steals per game. The long left-hander can also get off the ground and defend at multiple positions. He can hit the 3-pointer, having nailed 50 of them this season while shooting 33% from long range.
What they do best: Push the ball and finish. Illinois is at its best when it can take advantage of tempo and finish. The Illini aren’t the best from beyond the arc or at the free-throw line. So, finishing and taking advantage of tempo is key.
Best win this season: Illinois’ best win was way back in November, a 79-70 victory over then-No. 8 UCLA in Las Vegas. The Illini are 5-4 against ranked teams this season. Their most recent ranked victory was a 66-62 triumph over then-No. 21 Northwestern.
Most important thing to know about the Illini: Shannon faced Arkansas before in the NCAA Tournament. Back in the 2020-21 season, while playing for Texas Tech, Shannon scored 20 points against the Razorbacks in a 2nd-round tournament game won by the Hogs.
Prediction: Arkansas 62, Illinois 60
Beyond the opener
Can Arkansas produce enough offense to advance past the 1st round? If so, No. 1 seed Kansas awaits for a potential 2nd-round matchup. That’s probably where the road ends for Arkansas.
But then again, who knows? The Razorbacks have made a lengthy run the past 2 years, turning up their game to another level in the postseason. Do the unthinkable, gut out a couple of victories, and the path could be cleared for a Cinderella run out West, where the likes of Gonzaga, UCLA and others lie in wait.