Hogs have even chance of advancing over Illini

Arkansas players walk to the foul line after a timeout during final minutes of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Friday, March 10, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

The erratic Arkansas Razorbacks (20-13) meet the inconsistent Illinois Fighting Illini (20-12) at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in one of the best first-round pairings in all of the NCAA Tournament.

The game itself is sure to be a rock fight on a roller coaster as these two talented yet underachieving teams battle for their basketball lives in this West Regional game.

The Eric Musselman-coached Razorbacks are a 1- to 1.5-point favorite, depending on which oddsmaker you’d like to believe, but that margin is so thin, who could count out coach Brad Underwood’s Illini, which is the bigger, more experienced ball club with a couple of transfers with NCAA experience at Baylor and Texas Tech.

The Illini went 11-9 in the Big 10 this season, while the Hogs finished under .500 in the SEC with an 8-10 mark. Interestingly enough, the Big 10 and the SEC each sent eight teams to the Big Dance, which tied for the most of any conference. A game within the game to watch this year is how each conference fares, particularly against each other.

As the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, the Razorbacks-Illini winner will likely have the dubious honor of playing the West’s No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks (27-7) on Saturday, which faces the Howard Bison (22-12) in the first game at Des Moines. Only an upset of monumental proportions could forestall that.

Even though the top-seeded Jayhawks have been known for spitting the bit with a few early exits from the NCAA Tournament under coach Bill Self, Howard hasn’t got much of a chance.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Illinois (NCAA Tournament)
When: 3:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa

And considering neither the Hogs nor the Illini have won back-to-back games since the third week of February, it’s really difficult imagining either upsetting Kansas, despite the fact Self is still recovering from a stent placement procedure to his heart last week.

Self has been at practices since Monday, but his assistant Norm Roberts characterized his boss’ condition as day-to-day on Tuesday, according to the Kansas City TV report from 41 KSHB. Kansas is expected to announce Self’s role in a news conference held at the pod site Wednesday.

The Illini will have a height, size, and experience advantage over the Hogs. Every starting Illini is at least 6-6, and only one weighs less than 225 pounds.

Leading the way is senior guard and first-team All-Big 10, Terrance Sharron Jr. at 6-6, 225, who leads the Illini in scoring with 17.1 ppg. His backcourt mates are R.J. Melendez (6-7, 205) and Matthew Mayer (6-9, 225), who average 12.8 ppg. and 5.5 rpg. Jayden Epps (6-2, 190) who averages 9.7 ppg. off the bench.

The versatile junior Coleman Hawkins (6-10, 225) leads the Illini in rebounds (6.3), assists (3.0) and minutes (32.4) per game. Sophomore Dain Dainja (6-9, 270) is a load, averaging 9.7 ppg. And 5.5 rpg.

Though the Razorbacks have excellent length and good size, they have struggled against tall lineups that aggressively guard the basket like Alabama, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State, which lost to the Pitt Panthers, 60-59, in the NCAA Tournament First Four, Tuesday night.

Don’t let the Hogs’ shooting percentage of 47% from the field fool you. The Razorbacks struggle from the 3-point line at 31.5% and are a very mediocre 69% at the free-throw line. The Razorbacks also average 12.9 turnovers to 13.4 assists a game.

Lengthy teams like the Illini have given the Razorbacks trouble at the rim. Illinois is a heavy team, too. Arkansas might try to speed them up, but when the Hogs get going too fast, sometimes the ball starts flying everywhere.

The Razorbacks are at their best when driving to the basket, but often times they go too deep and make bad decisions. Many of their turnovers come from indecision once they are in the air. Arkansas also is prone to drive into charges as well as having their shots blocked from behind.

The Hogs have also shown a tendency to tighten up in the second half of games, allowing double-digit leads to melt away on multiple occasions this season, usually against SEC squads that made the NCAA Tournament.

That said when the Razorbacks are at their best, they can challenge and even upend NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents, but as Forrest Gump might say, the Razorbacks are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

In the Hogs’ favor is having nearly four days of preparation for the Illini. Given time, Musselman is as good a coach as any — perhaps the best — in college basketball at devising a plan for a specific team and at least until this season, getting his squad to execute it.

To be fair, the last two and half weeks, the Hogs have faced a monumentally tough schedule. Getting Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky as their last three regular season games was tough, and then facing Auburn and Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament would not have been a cakewalk for any team in the nation.

Injuries have stirred the pot for the Hogs all season. One could generalize that Razorbacks were playing their best basketball of the season just before Nick Smith Jr. was added back into the mix in mid February after being out since before Christmas.

Smith is as talented as advertised, but he is nearly 20 games behind his teammates in playing together and in college experience in general. It shows at times.

As legendary retired Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson might have described, Smith sometimes plays in a hurry, rather than fast. Sometimes each of the Hogs’ freshmen do.

I’m not sure the team and Smith have totally gelled just yet. Maybe it will happen this week in the NCAA Tournament?

Perhaps the Razorbacks’ best on-the-court asset going into NCAA play is junior Davonte “Devo” Davis. Davis has played some of his best basketball in the NCAA Tournament in the Hogs’ runs to the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons.

Maybe it’s Devo’s time of year?

The Hogs can lean on his and to a degree Kamani Johnson’s post-season experience. Davis is “wired” to defend as former Razorback and ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes might say.

Davis is in that elite tier of defensive guard the program’s best teams have always been built around, guys like Patrick Beverley, Ronnie Brewer, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel, Lee Mayberry, Arlyn Bowers, Keith Wilson, Alvin Robertson, Ricky Norton, Darrell Walker, Ron Brewer Sr., Marvin Delph, and the great Sidney Moncrief.

When Davis’ time is done at Arkansas, we can discuss where he fits in with those Razorback legends as a defender, but his tenacity, toughness, and experience are some things that his teammates can draw upon at this time of the season.

If the Razorbacks play well, I can envision them getting past the Illini in a tough one to earn a shot at Kansas.

For that to happen, though, the Hogs must find a way of correcting their mistakes and bad tendencies within the flow of the game.