Scouting Illinois' path in the NCAA Tournament: Arkansas could be hell in Round 1
Sometimes a team can just be happy to be included. At this point, that’s likely how Illinois feels ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
After being 1 of the hottest teams in 2022, the Fighting Illini regressed this season, primarily in conference play. They slumped toward the end of the season, losing 5 of their last 9 games in the regular season, including a pair to Penn State. Things didn’t improve much afterward, as the Illini were handed an early exit from the B1G Tournament thanks to a 3rd loss to the Nittany Lions in less than 5 weeks.
But hey, it’s a new chapter, right? As the No. 9 seed in the West Region, the Illini could be evenly matched against No. 8-seeded Arkansas, another program that regressed. And while the Hogs might have advanced further in the SEC Tournament, it’s not as if they impressed against Texas A&M in the quarterfinals.
A win in Round 1 could do wonders for morale in Champaign. Will the Illini be up for the task before potentially taking on No. 1 seed Kansas in the West Region?
Here’s a look at the Razorbacks and a prediction of how far the Illini will advance:
The Razorbacks (20-13, 8-10 SEC) finished 10th in the SEC regular season standings after a woeful start to conference play. After nearly blowing a 7-point lead to Auburn in the 2nd Round of the SEC Tournament, Arkansas actually did let a game slip, blowing a 13-point 1st-half lead to Texas A&M on Friday in the quarterfinals.
How the Razorbacks got here: A solid non-conference start gave Arkansas some wiggle room to struggle midseason. With wins over No. 17 San Diego State, Louisville and Oklahoma, the Hogs felt confident as the new calendar year came into the picture. However, 4 Quad I losses did little to help the Hogs’ case. Arkansas also ended the season on a sour note, losing 3 of its last 5 games, all of which were against ranked opponents.
Top player: Arkansas is one of the few team-based programs in the SEC, but Ricky Council IV might be its most consistent player. He’s averaging 15.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 33.8 minutes per outing. Over the last 5 regular-season games, Council finished with at least 11 points each outing and shot 42.9% or better from the field in 4 contests.
Nick Smith, however, might end up being the name to track against the Illini. The projected 1st-round pick in the NBA Draft is averaging 14 points per game and has been hot down the stretch. Against Auburn, Smith notched 14 points and 3 rebounds. Against the Aggies, he totaled 16 points and 4 assists.
What they do best: The Hogs know how to disrupt a team’s rhythm. They rank 2nd among SEC teams in blocks per game at 5.2 and 3rd in steals at 8.4. They capitalize on turnovers.
Best win this season: It didn’t feel like it then, but an 81-70 victory over then-unranked Texas A&M on Jan. 31 was massive. That win likely kept the Hogs in the tournament picture despite their late-season collapse. Arkansas shot 50% from the field and 33.3% from behind the arc. Four players reached double-digits in points.
Most important thing to know about the Razorbacks: They’re better than their record indicates. Smith and Anthony Black are projected top-10 selections in the NBA Draft. Council can change the course of the game in an instant, while Trevon Brazile is a rebounding machine. Don’t let the record fool you, either. Of the 10 conference losses, 3 came by 3 points or fewer, while 6 came by fewer than 10.
Prediction: Arkansas’ defense will do most of the heavy lifting. If the Hogs can grab a few steals, they’ll capitalize in the other direction. The biggest thing for Illinois will be attacking in the 2nd half. In back-to-back SEC tournament games, the Razorbacks blew substantial leads. And while the Hogs were able to recover against the Tigers, the same couldn’t be said against the Aggies. Can the Illini get hot at the right time?
Look for 1st-team All-Big Ten player Terrence Shannon Jr. to be the driving force for a late comeback. If he goes off, the Illini stand a chance. If not, the Hogs punch their ticket to the Round of 32.
Prediction: Arkansas 63, Illinois 60
Beyond the opener
Regardless of who walks away victorious in Round 1, Round 2 has a massive David vs. Goliath feel. The winner will likely face top-ranked Kansas, which proved to be one of the more consistent programs in the nation this winter. Fresh off a national title in 2022, expect the Jayhawks to come out swinging for a shot at a repeat.
Keep in mind that the Jayhawks will be playing for Bill Self, who was hospitalized last week during the Big 12 Tournament after complaining of chest tightness and balance concerns. Kansas also shot 46.6% from the field and averaged 7 3-pointers per game. Defensively, the Jayhawks held opponents under 70 points and 41.6% from the field.
Illinois might win to open the tournament, but its journey will likely end no later than Saturday.