By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks are the 8-seed and will face 9-seed Illinois in the first round of the NCAA Tournament West Region on Thursday (3:30 p.m. CT, TBS) in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Hogs (20-13) are 0-5 all-time against the Illini (20-12), but the teams have never met in the NCAAT. The last time they played was in 2004-2005. The teams had a single common opponent during the 2022-23 regular season — Missouri — with Arkansas splitting the season home-and-away series in close games and the Illini getting drummed, 93-71, in a non-conference rivalry game played on a neutral floor in December in St. Louis.

The winner of the Arkansas-Illinois matchup will face the Thursday first-round winner between the tournament’s third overall No. 1 seed, Kansas (27-7), and 16-seed Howard (22-12), a game that is also being played in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I like Arkansas here against Illinois,” CBS college basketball analyst and former Villanova head coach Jay Wright said during the network’s Selection Sunday telecast. “They matchup 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.”

The Hoop Hogs have now made the NCAAT in three consecutive seasons (each with a top-half of bracket seeding) and its their sixth NCAAT at-large bid in their last nine campaigns while notching their 35th NCAAT appearance in program history. Arkansas is 6-11 this season against NCAAT teams with the wins coming against San Diego State, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Missouri, Auburn, and North Carolina-Asheville.

The Razorbacks finished with a strong NCAA NET ranking (No. 21) despite recent struggles as they were generally garnering NCAAT 8-seed projections heading into Selection Sunday with a 4-10 record in Quad-1 games, 4-2 in Q2, and 12-1 in Q3/4.

“Unless you coached or played in the NCAA, I don’t think you really know how hard it is to make this tournament,” fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman said on Sunday after learning of his team’s NCAAT fate. “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.

“We knew we were in the tournament based on the body of work we did over the course of an entire college season. Our staff did a great job with non-conference scheduling. Because without our non-conference schedule, that really, really helped position us not only to be in the tournament, but to be an eight seed than maybe a lower seed than that.”

While its overall body of work was solid, Arkansas lost 4 of its last 5 games as part of a 6-losses-in-9-games skid going into the NCAAT, although the team did reach its fourth consecutive 20-win season under Musselman. The Hogs are 4-2 in neutral-site games this season (5-2 if you count their win over Missouri Valley Conference champion Bradley in North Little Rock in December).

The Razorbacks are coming off a 1-1 finish in the SEC Tournament as the league’s No. 10 seed — a 76-73 win over 7-seed Auburn in the second round on Thursday followed by a 67-61 loss to 2-seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals on Friday.

Eight SEC teams were invited to the Dance: Overall No. 1-seed Alabama (South Region), 4-seed Tennessee (East Region), 6-seed Kentucky (East Region), 7-seed Texas A&M (Midwest Region), 7-seed Missouri (South Region), 8-seed Arkansas (West Region), 9-seed Auburn (Midwest Region), and First Four play-in 11-seed Mississippi State (Midwest Region).

The Hogs are the only SEC team to NOT share a regional bracket with another league oppponent.

Musselman is 93-41 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 4-3 record in SECT play and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.

“A lot of work goes into making the tournament,” Musselman said. “It’s not just from November until today, it’s a lot of stuff that happens in the summer, too.”

All-time in the NCAA, Arkansas is 48-34 in the NCAAT with one national championship, one national runner-up, 6 Final Fours, 11 Elite Eights, and 13 Sweet 16s.

Scouting Illinois from the Big Ten

Illini head coach Brad Underwood led his squad to 11-9 in the Big Ten for a seventh-place finish, but it lost its B10 tournament first-round game to Penn State as the Nittany Lions would make it to the conference tourney finals on Sunday.

Making its 33rd NCAAT (two fewer than Arkansas) with 42 NCAAT victories (6 fewer than Arkansas), Illinois (NET No. 34) is in the Dance for a third-consecutive season (same as Arkansas). The Illini were defeated in the Round of 32 a season ago by Houston.

Versatile senior 6-6 transfer wing Terrence Shannon, Jr. — he was a Texas Tech Red Raider who notched 20 points when then-3-seed Arkansas defeated then-6-seed Tech in the Round of 32 in the ’20-21 NCAAT in Indianapolis — was named first-team All-Big Ten in ’22-23 as he led the team in scoring with 17.1 points to go with 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.3 steals in 32.1 minutes per game while shooting 44.0% from the field, including 32.7% from 3, and 79.2% free throws. He scored 30 points in an early-season non-conference win over Monmouth and had 10 games of scoring 20 or more points.

Senior 6-9 forward and Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer is averaging 12.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 assists in 26.7 minutes per game while shooting 41.4% fromthe field, including 33.8% from 3, and 74.3% from the foul line. He also matched up and was productive against Arkansas in that ’20-21 NCAAT when the top-seeded and eventual national champion Bears defeated the Razorbacks in the Elite Eight (a.k.a the Region championship games).

Junior 6-10 forward Coleman Hawkins can stretch the floor as a face-up shooter out to the three-point line, and he’s averaging 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds (leads the team), 3.0 assists (leads the team), and 1.2 blocks  in 32.4 minutes per contest while shooting 44.4% from the field, including 27.8% from 3, and 60.3% from the free throw line. Sophomore 6-9 big man Dain Dainja weighs in at 270 pounds and is averaging 9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 in 20.5 minutes per game while shooting 63.7% from the field and 52.6% from the free throw line.

Freshman 6-2 guard Jayden Epps had missed two games in concussion protocol before returning for two minutes of playing time against Penn State in the Big 10 tournament. Epps is averaging 9.7 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists in 25.2 minutes per game while shooting 41.8% from the field, including 30.3% from 3, and 77.8% from the free throw line.

Mayer (67), Shannon (50), Epps (37), and Hawkins (35) have combined to knock down 189 three-pointers for Illinois, although as a team the Illini are making triples at only a 30.9% clip.

Illinois ranks top 50 in Division 1 in both defensive rebounds (26.6 per game) and total rebounds (37.9), and its top 75 in offensive rebounds (11.3).

Offensively, Illinois ranks 22nd in D1 in two-point field goal efficiency (55.3%) but it’s one of the worst in three-point shooting efficiency (30.9%) and free throw percentage (68.0%). Defensively, the Illini rank 2nd in D1 in blocks per game (5.7), 19th in two-point field goal percentage defense (45.3%), 41st in opposition’s made three-pointers per game (6.1), and 58th in overall field goal percentage defense (41.7%).

The Illini typically go 8-deep in their gam-to-game player rotation. According to analytics, Illinois ranks No. 33 in D1 (32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency and 58th in adjusted offensive efficiency).

“Everybody that you would potentially play in the NCAA Tournament is a really good team,” Musselman said. “That’s why they’re in this tournament. Certainly, Illinois is really well-coached. Some guys that we’ve played before like Terrence Shannon, who was at Texas Tech. Obviously, Matthew Mayer played at Baylor. They’ve got some really good transfers. It’s an excellent shot-blocking team. But anybody from the Big Ten that qualifies for the NCAA Tournament is a really good team.”

The West Region

In addition to 8-seed Arkansas, 9-seed Illinois, 1-seed Kansas, and 16-seed Howard playing Thursday-Saturday first- and second-round games in Des Moines, the West Region has …

* 4-seed UConn (25-8) take on 15-seed UNC-Asheville (27-7) and 5-seed St. Mary’s (26-7) faces 12-seed Virginia Commonwealth (27-7) — these teams will play Friday-Sunday first- and second-round games in Albany, NY, and the overall winner from that foursome will face the overall winner of the aforementioned 1-8-9-16 seed foursome in the Sweet 16.

* 3-seed Gonzaga (28-5) will play 14-seed Grand Canyon (24-11) and 6-seed TCU (21-12) will face the First Four play-in winner between 11-seeds Arizona State and Nevada — these teams will play Friday-Sunday first- and second-round games in Denver, Colo., and the overall winner from that fivesome advancing to the Sweet 16 to face the overall winner from the foursome of (see below) …

* 2-seed UCLA (29-5) will play 15-seed UNC-Asheville (27-7) and 7-seed Northwestern (21-11) will take on 10-seed Boise State (24-9) — these teams will play Thursday-Saturday first- and second-round games in Sacramento, Calif., with the overall winner from that foursome advancing to the Sweet 16.

Recapping Arkansas’ 2022-23 season

The Hogs went unbeaten in their 4-game European exhibition tour in August, they went 1-1 in their October exhibition season, 11-2 in non-conference play including a 2-1 / third-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii in November, and 8-10 in the SEC regular-season before splitting two games in the SEC Tournament.
The best stretch of games for the Hogs came in the middle of league play when Arkansas won five consecutive SEC games capped by the team’s best win of the season — an 88-73 road win over Kentucky in early February.

The team struggled all season with turnovers, poor free throw shooting, poor three-point shooting, fouling, inconsistency on defense, and losing its grip on double-digit leads.

Freshman guard Anthony Black (12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 46.5% field goals, 31.0% three-pointers, 69.6% free throws) and junior guard Ricky Council IV (team-leading 15.9 points per game, 3.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 44.5% field goals, 27.2% three-pointers, 77.4% free throws) authored all-leafgue seasons (more on that down the page), as did Hog veteran guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (10.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 41.2% field goals, 34.4% three-pointers, 70.2% free throws). 

Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., returned from a two-month, 13-game absence due to right knee management and competed in Arkansas’ last 9 games (he’s played in a total of 14 games in ’22-23). Smith’s second on the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game to go with 2.0 assists and 1.8 rebounds while shooting 39.1% from the field, including 34.4% from 3, and 73.9% from the free throw line. The Hogs were not as lucky with sophomore forward Trevon Brazile (11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 48.1% field goals, including 37.9% from 3, and 67.7% free throws) who was lost for the season (knee injury) in non-conference play in early December.

The Razorbacks’ frontline quintet of freshman 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh and senior big men Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Kamani Johnson, and Jalen Graham have mostly been solid in supporting roles with Walsh and Makhi Mitchell playing and producing the most out of that group.

Linked are Hogville’s game articles for Arkansas’ 2 SECT games, 31 regular-season contests, plus 6 exhibition games (4 in Europe in August and 2 in October):

Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors

Arkansas landed a trio of Razorbacks on the SEC coaches’ 2022-23 postseason all league teams that were announced on Monday, March 6: Freshman guard Anthony Black was named second-team All SEC as well as SEC All Freshman team; junior guard Ricky Council IV was named second-team All SEC; and junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis was named to the SEC All Defensive team.

On Tuesday, March 7, Council was also named to the Associated Press’ All SEC second team.

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was twice named SEC Freshman of the week with two national FOW honors as well. He avgeraged 25.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.0 steal while shooting 48.6% from the field, including 63.6% from 3, and 77.8% at the free throw line as the Razorbacks split games against Georgia (Feb. 21) and Alabama (Feb. 25). Prior to that, Smith was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy in early December after leading the then-No. 9 Hoop Hogs in combined scoring (21.5 points per game) to go with 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in the team’s wins over UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 6) and Oklahoma (Dec. 10).

Council was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball. He was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 71% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 100% at the free throw line to pace the Hoop Hogs in wins over Troy (Nov. 28) and San Jose State (Dec. 3).

Black was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 55% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 86% at the free throw line in the Hoop Hogs’ 2-1 run / 3rd-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii (Nov. 21-23). Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.

On March 2, Arkansas freshman guard Derrian Ford was named to the SEC Men’s Basketball Community Service Team. As an education major, Ford has worked with the Extra Yard for Teachers. He’s also supported several children’s charities such as the First Tee Golf Event; the Children’s Safety Center, which empowers children to overcome abuse; the Yvonne Richardson Center Bike Giveaway, which gave away 100 bikes over two days; and the Miracles and Magic Radiothon for NWA Children’s Hospital, which helped kids and their families access to the best pediatric care.

How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology

Arkansas has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time of the 2022-23 season that the Hoop Hogs were unranked.

As of Sunday, March 12, the Razorbacks ranked No. 21 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 4-10 record in Quad-1 games — a nuetral-site win over Auburn, a road win over Kentucky, a home win over Texas A&M, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, two losses to Alabama (home-and-away), two losses to Texas A&M (road and neutral site), a home loss to Kentucky, a road loss against Tennessee, neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a road loss against Baylor, and a road loss against Missouri; b) a 4-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Florida, a home loss against Mississippi State, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU counted as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 4th among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Tennessee, and No. 18 Texas A&M. 

Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 14 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 22 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 19 according to ratings (includes No. 16 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 51 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as a No. 8 seed on Sunday afternoon, March 12, in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s final forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.