Arkansas vs Illinois: 2 Hogs Emerged as Biggest X-Factors

Eric Musselman, Brad Underwood, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Illinois, NCAA Tournament
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Illinois Athletics

LIVE UPDATES – Arkansas vs Illinois

Pregame Tidbits

Kansas beat Howard 96-68 in the first game of the day. It was close for about 15 minutes before the Jayhawks pulled away for a blowout. Freshman Grady Dick was as good as advertised, finishing with 19 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals.

Anthony Black is going through pregame warmups, confirming what he told reporters Wednesday: He’s playing.

Eric Musselman has reinserted Ricky Council IV and Kamani Johnson into the starting lineup. That means all three of the Razorbacks with NCAA Tournament experience – Council, Johnson and Devo Davis – are starting.

7:54, 1H – Arkansas 19, Illinois 10

Arkansas missed its first seven shots before Davis finally converted a fast break layup after a steal. However, that bucket tied it up 2-2. That’s likely because several of the misses came after the Hogs grabbed three offensive rebounds. That actually sparked an 8-0 run by Arkansas.

Turnovers have plagued both teams early on, with some ugly passes right to the other team, especially when they tried to push the ball in fast break situations.

Devo Davis picked up his second foul with 10:23 left in the half and was promptly replaced by Anthony Black.

At the under-8 media timeout, Davis is still the leading scorer in the game. He’s the only player who’s made multiple shots. Illinois is 4 for 18 (22.2%) from the floor, including just 1 of 6 from deep. The Razorbacks are 7 of 19 (36.8%) and have missed their lone 3-pointer, but are also 5 of 8 (62.5%) from the free throw line.

HALF – Arkansas 36, Illinois 26

Arkansas used a 10-0 run over a span of about 2.5 minutes to stretch its lead to double digits. That lead eventually grew to as much as 14.

After scoring only 12 total points in two SEC Tournament games, Ricky Council IV has 10 in the first half today. That includes a 3-pointer late in the shot clock with about four minutes left in the half.

The Razorbacks probably feel like they should be up by more, but they made only 1 of their last 6 shots and turned it over three times in the final three minutes.

HALFTIME STATS – Arkansas vs Illinois

8:02, 2H – Arkansas 55, Illinois 46

Illinois opened the half on a 7-2 run to cut Arkansas’ lead to five within the first three minutes. However, the run was snapped by a three-point play by Kamani Johnson.

The Illini cut the lead to five twice, but the second time, Arkansas responded with a 10-0 run. It appears to, for once, have weathered the storm. A nice move and layup by Makhi Mitchell gave the Razorbacks a 15-point lead, their largest of the game, and prompted a timeout by Illinois.

However, a quick spurt by RJ Melendez as Illinois right back in it. He knocks down a pair of 3s sandwiched around a layup, all within 72 seconds, prompting a rare timeout by Musselman. It’s a nine-point game.

FINAL – Arkansas 73, Illinois 63

That nine-point margin was as close as Illinois would come for about a five-minute stretch, until Shannon made a pair free throws with 2:36 remaining to cut it to seven. It came immediately after Council didn’t finish a lob from Smith on a fast break. Arkansas then turned it over on the ensuing inbounds, leading to an easy dunk by Melendez. That made it a five-point game and prompted a timeout by Musselman with 2:29 left.

Illinois had a chance to make it a one-possession game, but Davis snuck up behind Hawkins and poked the ball loose, leading to a turnover that Arkansas turned into points with a Council layup on the other end. That was a huge play because the Razorbacks made their first seven free throws in the final 1:18 to put the game out of reach.

Council finished with a double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds), while Davis chipped in 16 points and 6 rebounds.

FINAL STATS – Arkansas vs Illinois

Starting Lineups

Illinois BasketballArkansas Basketball
#0 – G Terrence Shannon Jr.#0 – G Anthony Black
#15 – G RJ Melendez#3 – G Nick Smith Jr
#24 – F Matthew Mayer#4 – G Davonte Davis
#33 – F Coleman Hawkins#1 – G Ricky Council IV
#42 – F Dain Dainja#20 – F Kamani Johnson

Arkansas vs Illinois Preview

After winning just a single game at the SEC Tournament for a third straight year, Arkansas basketball will now try to replicate the success it enjoyed in the NCAA Tournament the last two years — though this year’s team carries a different feel into the event.

Unlike the two previous Elite Eight runs, the Razorbacks will not enter the Big Dance as an AP-ranked team and top-four seed. Instead, they stumbled to an 8 seed after a frustrating season that included losing six of their final 10 games.

Even with the disappointing final stretch, Arkansas did more than enough to solidify its place in the tournament – mainly by playing the top four teams in the SEC twice each, but also by compiling an impressive non-conference record. In fact, 17 of the 33 games the Hogs have played so far were against teams now in the NCAA Tournament.

“I haven’t done it (for) a long time, but in the eight years I’ve done it, it’s by far the most difficult schedule — not even close to any other year that I’ve been doing this,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “And then you add in the injuries, I’m really proud of what our guys have (done), how they’ve stuck together.”

Fortunately for Arkansas basketball fans, the Razorbacks’ first matchup is against a 9 seed Illinois team that is also stumbling into the postseason, winning only four of its last 10 games, as well. The similarities between these teams doesn’t stop there, though.

Both teams struggle to shoot from long range, average nearly as many turnovers as assists and are ranked considerably higher in defensive efficiency than offensive efficiency. Below is a side-by-side comparison of just how similar these two teams are:

What to Expect from Illinois

The Fighting Illini are led by a pair of transfers who both played against Arkansas during its Elite Eight run in 2021: Terrance Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer.

Shannon is a 6-foot-6 senior transfer from Texas Tech. He averaged 11.0 points during his three years as a Red Raider before leading Illinois in scoring this year at 17.1 points per game to go along with 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals.

He was also a member of the Texas Tech team – led by Mac McClung – that missed a game-tying layup in the closing seconds against Arkansas in the Round of 32. Shannon scored a team-high 20 points in that game, including hitting 3-of-4 from long range. Expect a heavy dose of Davonte Davis attempting to deter Shannon on the perimeter.

“Terrence Shannon, he’s just so versatile,” Musselman said. “He’s a lefty. He can score at many different levels. He’s one of the best athletes in college basketball. He can attack the rim. He can beat people off the bounce. He’s an excellent transition player. He’s had a really, really good year for them.”

Mayer is a 6-foot-9 senior guard that transferred to Illinois from Baylor this season. He’s averaging 12.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists while shooting 34% from long range. Mayer was a member of the Baylor team that eliminated Arkansas in the Elite Eight and eventually won the National Championship in 2021. He tallied 7 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals against the Hogs in that game. The length of Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh will more than likely be deployed against Mayer.

These two seniors have brought a certain level of experience to the Fighting Illini – especially Mayer with his Championship experience – though they’ve also both seen their fair share of struggles and inconsistencies throughout the season.

Shannon’s shooting splits drop drastically between wins (46% FG / 36% 3PT / 80% FT) and losses (40% / 26% / 77%) on the season. He’s also scored 20 or more points 10 times this season – the same number of times he’s scored 13 or fewer points – including a game with only 4 points against Penn State in December. Mayer has nearly twice as many games scoring 10 points or fewer (13 games) as he does scoring 20 points or more (7 games).

This is a streaky duo that could play their team out of a game entirely, or single-handedly eliminate an opponent – especially an opponent who struggles to score the way Arkansas does at times.

Coleman Hawkins – a 6-foot-10 junior – is Illinois’ leading rebounder, averaging 6.3, followed closely by Mayer and Dain Dainja (6-foot-9) at 5.5 rebounds per game each. Both Hawkins and Dainja will be threats on the offensive glass, averaging 2.1 and 2.0 offensive rebounds, respectively, and both score just under 10 points per game on efficient shooting. Dainja in particular is shooting nearly 64% from inside the arc.

The Mitchell twins had a rough stretch of games to end the regular season, averaging a combined 3.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks on 20% shooting in the final three games. Mercifully, Makhi Mitchell reasserted himself into the gameplan in the SEC Tournament, notching back-to-back double-digit scoring games and averaging 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks on his own while shooting 85% from the field and 83% from the charity stripe.

While Makhel didn’t see quite the same level of success, he also contributed 4 points against Texas A&M – his most since scoring 5 against Alabama two weeks prior – to go along with 2 rebounds and 2 blocks on perfect shooting. It will be vital for one or both of the Mitchell twins to be on their game in this matchup and any potential future matchups. If they can keep the Illini big men off the offensive glass, the Hogs should be in good shape to pull out a win in round one.

Other notable players averaging at least 14.5 minutes per game for Illinois this season:

  • Jayden Epps: 6-foot-3 | Fr. | 25.2 MPG, 9.7 PPG, 1.5 APG, 31% 3P
  • RJ Melendez: 6-foot-7 | Soph. | 21.3 MPG, 5.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 51% 2P
  • Ty Rodgers: 6-foot-6 | Fr. | 17.2 MPG, 3.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 51% FG
  • Sencire Harris: 6-foot-4 | Fr. | 14.6 MPG, 3.7 PPG, 32% 3P

What to Expect from Arkansas

The Razorbacks have proven that they’re capable of playing with the best teams in the nation – as evidenced by their big wins over teams like San Diego State, Kentucky and Texas A&M, as well as their narrow road losses to teams like Alabama and Baylor. They’ve also shown that they can be beaten by nearly any team as well, though, including losses to LSU and Vanderbilt – neither of which made the NCAA Tournament.

Their struggles have come in large part due to their inconsistency on offense. Early in the season, this could be attributed to losing two major offensive pieces in Trevon Brazile (ACL) and Nick Smith Jr (knee), but after an extended adjustment period and the return of Smith, the Hogs are out of time and excuses to figure things out offensively.

This issue has been amplified against elite defensive teams. Arkansas is only 4-8 when playing against teams in the top-35 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings — Illinois ranks No. 32. The Hogs have averaged only 71.3 points per game on 44% FG and 28% 3PT shooting against such teams.

Smith and Black simply have to show up with at least average scoring performances. They both struggled with efficiency in the last game, combining to shoot 32% from the field, 30% from long range and 50% from the charity stripe. They still managed to tally 25 combined points, but missing as many shots as they did – along with a combined 7 turnovers – leaves the Hogs all but dead in the water against good teams. There’s little more to talk about if they both come out cold in this game, but even with good scoring nights from both, they’ll still need some help.

Devo Davis has done a tremendous job slowing down the opponent’s best perimeter player all season, but his scoring opportunities have tapered off since Smith returned to the lineup. Davis is actually shooting more efficiently beside Smith, but his shot attempts have dropped from roughly 12.4 through most of SEC play to 6.9 over his last seven games. In turn, his scoring has fallen from 14.1 points to 8.3 in the same timeframe.

This change wouldn’t be as noticeable if Ricky Council IV’s scoring hadn’t also taken a notable plunge in recent games. Despite being among the best scorers in the SEC this season, Council is averaging only 9.8 points on 28% FG and 22% 3P shooting over his last four games.

And, just like that, what once seemed like a sure thing is now a less predictable X-factor. If the Hogs want any chance at a tournament run, they’ll need the best version of Council to show up early and often.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Illinois

It’s clear these two teams share a lot of similarities. They’re both ranked notably higher on the defensive side of the ball, usually spelling trouble for the Razorbacks. However, The Fighting Illini’s offensive struggles and gameplan could play into Arkansas’ favor even with their stellar defense thanks to one player in particular: Devo Davis.

Davis brings by far the most tournament experience to the Razorback roster. He’s played in eight NCAA Tournament games in two years – more than most collegiate players will play in their whole career. 

Perhaps more importantly, he brings a level of intensity and attention to detail on the defensive side of the ball not often seen at the collegiate level.

He’s held opposing team’s leading scorers to below their averages such as Mac McClung at Texas Tech and Ben Shungu at Vermont. Illinois’ main offensive threat is Terrence Shannon, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard. With nearly a week of preparation, Davis will likely know Shannon’s moves inside and out.

“I watched (Illinois) quite a few times,” Davis said. “Especially Terrence Shannon. I like his game. I think he’s pretty good. We played against him when he was at Texas Tech. I’ve been watching them a little bit… His game has evolved. Overall, I think (Illinois) has a solid, solid team, for sure.”

Of course, the Illini have other scoring threats like Mayer and Hawkins, but removing Shannon from the equation could potentially discombobulate the entire Illinois offense – an offense that already struggles with consistency.

Aside from Davis’ potential to take over a game defensively is his incredible 180-degree turnaround as a 3-point shooter this season. After shooting below 23% for his first 76 career games, Davis is now shooting roughly 42% from long range over his last 18 games – including 57% from long range over his final three regular-season games.

Coming into the tournament with the most experience by far – as well as the ability to affect the game so drastically on both sides of the ball – Davis will likely be the X-factor in this first-round matchup.

Game Prediction

Arkansas basketball is 0-5 all-time against Illinois, though it’s 34-8 all-time as the higher-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament, according to HogStats. The Razorbacks are also 1-1 as an 8-seed playing against a 9-seed, their lone win coming against Seton Hall before the infamous last-second collapse against eventual-champions North Carolina in the second round.

Now in their third consecutive NCAA Tournament, Davis will indeed flex his defensive muscles against the Fighting Illini, forcing Shannon to work for every point he scores. Smith and Black will lead the Hogs on the offensive side of the ball against yet another stout defense, and the other Hogs will provide just enough scoring to push the Razorbacks over the top.

Arkansas moves on to the second round for the third consecutive year, earning a likely matchup with the 1-seed Kansas Jayhawks.

Arkansas, 71-64

How to Watch Arkansas vs Illinois in NCAA Tournament

Date: Thursday, March 16

Location: Wells Fargo Arena (Des Moines, Iowa)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 3:30 p.m. CT (TBS)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 57.4% chance to win, favored by 2.5 points

Here’s a preview of the Arkansas vs Illinois matchup at the NCAA Tournament:


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