FAYETTEVILLE — Despite everything it went through this season, the Arkansas basketball team is still dancing this March.
The Razorbacks were selected as an 8 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and will face 9 seed Illinois in the first round. Tipoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. CT Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, and will be televised on TBS.
This marks the third straight year Arkansas has made it to the big dance, something it hadn’t done since 2006-08.
“Unless you coached or played in the NCAA, I don’t think you really know how hard it is to make this tournament,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “You can look when the brackets are finished at all the great programs and all the teams with a lot of talent that aren’t in this tournament.
“So it’s a hard one to get into, and it should never get old for any coach. It should never get old for any family member of a coaching family. It certainly shouldn’t get old for any player.”
It will be the sixth all-time meeting between the two schools, with the most recent being a 72-60 loss by Arkansas at now-Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock on Dec. 4, 2004. The Fighting Illini have won all five of the previous matchups.
Illinois enters the NCAA Tournament with a 20-12 record that includes an 11-9 mark in Big Ten play. That was tied for fifth in the conference and earned it the 7 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, in which it was knocked out by Penn State in its first game.
Arkansas is 20-13 overall and finished with an 8-10 record in SEC play, earning it a 10 seed in the SEC Tournament. It knocked off Auburn in its first game to snap a three-game skid, but then lost to Texas A&M.
The winner of Thursday’s game will likely face 1 seed Kansas with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line. The Jayhawks open up the tournament against Howard, a 16 seed — which are just 1-147 against 1 seeds since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
This is the West Region, so the winner of the four-team pod in Des Moines would advance to the Sweet 16 in Las Vegas the following weekend.
What to Know about Illinois Basketball
Despite being a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, Illinois enters the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 33 on KenPom and No. 34 in the NET.
Checking in at No. 23 in the preseason AP Poll, the Fighting Illini also spent the first six weeks of the regular season in the top 25. They were ranked as high as No. 16 before falling out of the poll for good in December.
“Everybody that you would potentially play in the NCAA Tournament is a really good team,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “That’s why they’re in this tournament. Certainly Illinois is really well coached. … Anybody from the Big Ten that qualifies for the NCAA Tournament is a really good team.”
Illinois’ top two scorers should be names Arkansas basketball fans recognize because the Razorbacks played both of them a couple of years ago in the 2021 tournament.
Terrence Shannon Jr., a transfer from Texas Tech, is averaging 17.1 points on 44% shooting this season. With the Red Raiders, he scored 20 points (6 of 16 FG, 2 of 4 3PT, 5 of 5 FT) in 35 minutes of a game the Razorbacks ultimately won to move on to the Sweet 16.
“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.”
The Fighting Illini also have Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer, who happens to be their season-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game. He came off the bench in the Bears’ win over Arkansas two years ago and had 7 points on 3 of 6 shooting, plus added three steals in 20 minutes.
As a team, Illinois ranks No. 58 and No. 32 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, respectively, on KenPom. Much like Arkansas, it is one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country, with its 13.4% block percentage ranking seventh. (The Razorbacks rank 18th in that category.)
NCAA Tournament Path for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks have to take care of business against Illinois before worrying about anything else, but here’s a quick glance at their path to Houston, which is hosting this year’s Final Four.
If it wins Thursday, Arkansas would almost certainly play Kansas — barring another UMBC-over-Virginia type of upset — in the second round on Saturday.
The Jayhawks are 27-7 and won the regular-season Big 12 title, but got blown out by Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game. However, they were without head coach Bill Self, who had to be hospitalized last week. He’s since been released and will be with the team for the NCAA Tournament.
If the Razorbacks manage to pull off that upset and make it to the second weekend for a third straight year — something it failed to do even once the 23 years before Eric Musselman was hired — their matchup in the Sweet 16 would be against 4 seed UConn, 5 seed St. Mary’s, 12 seed VCU or 13 seed Iona.
The two most likely opponents for Arkansas basketball in the Elite Eight — should it make it that far — would be 2 seed UCLA or 3 seed Gonzaga. The former would be a rematch of the 1995 national championship game, which the Bruins won, while the latter would be a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 showdown, which the Razorbacks won.
Here’s a look at the full West Region:
Check out the reveal of the entire West Region, which features Arkansas basketball as an 8 seed:
Expert Picks of Arkansas vs Illinois at the NCAA Tournament
Mere minutes after the entire West Region of the NCAA Tournament was revealed on CBS, the Arkansas basketball team got some love from a legendary college basketball coach.
Former Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who won the 2016 and 2018 national titles before retiring last offseason, said he believes the Razorbacks are capable of making a run back to the second weekend.
“I like Arkansas here against Illinois,” Wright said. “If Arkansas can get past Illinois, which is going to be a great game, they match up with Kansas really well. Their length and speed, Nick Smith now playing like he is, they could give Kansas a problem right there, second-round game.”
ESPN’s Jeff Borzello has picked the Razorbacks to beat Illinois 70-63, but to lose to Kansas 74-67 in his bracket.
Seth Davis of The Athletic has Arkansas losing to the Fighting Illini, but Matt Norlander of CBS Sports ranks the Razorbacks (No. 31) ahead of Illinois (No. 35) in his annual ranking of the 68 teams in the field.
“The Hogs aren’t going into this tournament playing their best ball, but they’ve got a shot because they’ve got a top-10 NBA pick on the roster in freshman Nick Smith Jr.,” Norlander wrote. “And remember, Eric Musselman’s taken Arkansas to back-to-back Elite Eights. We’ll see what they’ve got in store.”
Both KenPom and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index give Arkansas a slight edge over Illinois, with the former giving the Razorbacks a 56% chance to win and predicting a 73-72 final score and the latter giving them a 57.4% chance with a winning margin of 2.0 points.
Anthony Black Injury Update
Something to keep an eye on this week is the health of star freshman Anthony Black, who was spotted with a boot on his left foot during Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament watch party at Walk-On’s in Fayetteville.
Eric Musselman said he was hopeful that his starting point guard would be able to play Thursday, but didn’t reveal much information regarding the injury.
“He’s in a boot and he’ll get rehab today,” Musselman said. “That’ll be between him and the trainer.”
When he spoke with reporters, Black said he got hurt when he jumped up to get a rebound and landed on someone’s foot during the loss to Texas A&M last Friday.
However, he added that there’s “no doubt” that he’ll play in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m pretty tough through injuries,” Black said. “I’ll be ready. … I feel 100% good that I can tough it out. I’m used to playing through stuff.”
It’s no secret that Black is vital to Arkansas’ chances of making a run in the tournament. He has been arguably the Razorbacks’ most consistent player, averaging 12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.0 steals this season.
Already projected to be a first-round pick when he signed with Arkansas as a five-star recruit, Black has climbed into the lottery in most mock drafts and could join fellow freshman Nick Smith Jr in the top 10 picks. That is why he was listed as one of five “must-see” players in the West Region by Bryan Fischer of FOX Sports.
“Depending upon whom you ask, Black is one of the top college players who will be picked during this summer’s NBA Draft and is unmistakable, given his 6-foot-7 frame and unique hairstyle,” Fischer wrote. “He still needs to improve his 3-point shooting but his ability to make shots in the lane, rebound and get to the line will play a big role for the Hogs against Illinois in the first round.”
Familiar Foes Make NCAA Tournament
More than half – 17 to be exact – of the 33 games played by the Arkansas basketball team this year were against teams that reached the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
In non-conference play, the Razorbacks beat the Big South (UNC Asheville) and Mountain West (San Diego State) automatic qualifiers, plus lost to at-large bids Creighton and Baylor – each by only three points.
In SEC play, the Razorbacks played Texas A&M three times, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Auburn twice, and Tennessee and Mississippi State once.
Check out what Eric Musselman, Davonte Davis and Anthony Black had to say about Arkansas basketball making the 2023 NCAA Tournament:
2023 NCAA Tournament Bracket
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