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Illinois Basketball: 4 Thoughts Before Arkansas



After a one and done showing in the Big Ten tournament, Illinois drew Arkansas as a 9 seed in Des Moines in the first round. It won’t be the easiest route, but it also isn’t an impossible one.

1. Other Side of the Mirror

In the offseason, Arkansas and Illinois were pointed to as the modern examples of how to rebuild in College Basketball. Both teams augmented a strong recruiting class with headliner transfers. Arkansas lost the majority of their Elite Eight squad, and Illinois lost the majority of their Big Ten Championship squad. Both came into the year as sleepers for a deep run in March but were also expected to have some bumps in the road.

For both, the bumps turned out to be a little bigger than forecasted, leading them both to the 8-9 game. Arkansas finished tenth in the SEC at 8-10 in conference play. Illinois finished in a tie for fifth in the Big Ten, technically finishing seventh. For both the mix of Freshmen and new faces from other programs proved too much to consistently play to their talent level. In that way they both are dangerous teams in this spot, talented enough to take a piece of a one seed, but inconsistent enough to possibly lay an egg as well.

2. Dudes vs Dudes

There’s a reason why there was such high hopes for Arkansas, who opened the year at number 10 in the country. They have two surefire lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft in Anthony Black and Nick Smith Jr. Black is a 6’7″ Swiss Army Knife that combines his elite positional size at point guard with some serious game feel on both ends. Smith is a silky scorer who can hurt a defense from all three levels. The Razorbacks also have a couple of mid-draft prospects in Ricky Council IV and Jordan Walsh. Council IV is an electric athlete and leads the Razorbacks in scoring off the bench. Walsh is a lockdown defender and glue guy at 6’7″ but has a long way to go offensively.

Illinois obviously isn’t short on NBA talent either, and while they don’t have the top end guys draft wise, their NBA prospects are all upperclassmen, versus Arkansas young bucks. Terrence Shannon Jr and Coleman Hawkins have more tournament games each under their belt than Arkansas future pros combined. The Illini will need their dudes to be dudes in these high level matchups and use their guile and experience to give Illinois an edge.

3. Above the Rim

Neither of these teams are lacking in athleticism, and they’re not afraid to show it. Both are in the top ten nationally in blocks per game, with Illinois at second and Arkansas at eighth. Basically, one through five the Razorbacks play above the rim athletes, and both teams rank in the top 60 in two-point field goal percentage. As with most college basketball players, this comes at a deficit of shooting. Like the Illini, the Razorbacks are one of the worst teams in the country at shooting threes, 314th in the country in percentage. Unlike the Illini, the Razorbacks are also in the 300s in attempts per game from deep.

With two similar teams, the gameplans will likely be focused on keeping either team out of the paint and away from the rim. Both teams have their hardest time getting to the basket when their best players go iso and settle for jump shots. Arkansas elite NBA talent isn’t exactly something you can completely reign in, and while Arkansas is a lot better than Illinois at playing inside out offensively, the young guys can get caught up in settling for jumpers.

4. Desperation Time

I’ve expressed this thought in previous articles, but I truly do not think we have seen this team truly desperate all season. They’ve basically been a nailed-on tournament team since they beat Texas in early December. Even beyond that, Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer had both been to the second weekend of the Big Dance, with Mayer winning a national championship at Baylor. Arkansas is a feisty team. Their young guys are not afraid of anyone and especially not afraid to let you know about it. Against the best teams all year the Illini have stepped up and given strong effort.

With tomorrow no longer guaranteed and many counting them out, perhaps the combination of Arkansas’ fiery nature and the finality of March will bring out the level of intensity we have only really seen flashes of all year. Call it wishful thinking, but the Illini have their fair share of proud, tough characters themselves. Will desperation put the ball in the basket from behind the three-point line? Probably not, but it may make someone pass up that three to take it hard to the basket and score or draw a foul.

This matchup is exactly what you envision in an 8-9 game. Two very talented but flawed teams that have seen ups and downs all year. In order to reach what certainly was their biggest preseason goal of the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Illinois will need a two more ups, starting on Thursday.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.