Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for the Hawgs Sports Network. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas and previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was the 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
5 things to know about Illinois
Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) brings the ball up court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
FAYETTEVILLE — An in-depth look at Illinois, Arkansas' first-round opponent at the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa:
Terrence Shannon is the Illini’s go-to player
For the second time in the last three NCAA Tournaments, Shannon finds himself matched up against the Razorbacks.
Illinois’ leading scorer at 17.1 points per game, Shannon was a member of the Texas Tech team that fell 68-66 to Arkansas in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis. The 6-6 wing was the Red Raiders’ top scorer in that game with 20 points.
Shannon finished 6 of 16 from the field, but knocked down 3 of 4 attempts beyond the arc. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman remembers him well.
More from WholeHogSports: How to watch, listen to Arkansas-Illinois
“He’s just so versatile. He’s a lefty,” Musselman said Sunday. “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.”
In Big Ten play, Shannon was ninth in scoring at 15.9 points per game. He scored 20-plus points six times, including 26 against both Indiana and Northwestern.
Shannon’s most impressive performance came during the Fighting Illini’s early season 79-70 win over UCLA. He finished with 29 points on 8 of 9 from three-point range, and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.
Shannon also had 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals during Illinois’ 85-78 overtime victory over Texas in December.
The wing excels at drawing contact and cashing in at the free-throw line. According to KenPom data, he draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes played, which ranks 38th nationally.
Shannon was No. 2 in that category in conference play and owned the No. 1 free-throw rate. He is a 79.2% free-throw shooter.
“I like his game,” Arkansas guard Davonte Davis said Sunday. “He’s pretty good. We played against him, of course, when he was at Texas Tech. His game has evolved.”
Illinois is an elite shot-blocking team
According to KenPom data, the Razorbacks have faced six teams inside top 50 in the country in block percentage.
Illinois will be the seventh. And the Fighting Illini are the best Arkansas will have played this season in that regard.
Illinois has turned away 14% of opponents’ two-point field goal attempts. Its figure dropped slightly in Big Ten play (13.7%), but it was still strong enough to lead the league.
The Fighting Illini have three of the Big Ten’s top 10 shot blockers in Matthew Mayer (40), Coleman Hawkins (38) and Dain Dainja (37). Five players, including Shannon, have at least 15 blocks.
Illinois blocked 10-plus shots in three games, including a season-high 12 against the Longhorns and 10 during a win against Michigan State. The Fighting Illini tallied at least six blocks in 17 games.
Given their shot-blocking prowess, it makes sense that they are also No. 16 in the country in two-point field goal defense this season, allowing opponents to make 45.3% of interior looks.
To this point, Illinois has blocked 181 shots — the most among high-major teams and fourth most nationally. Arkansas is No. 6 with 173.
The Illini struggle shooting the three
It may be a bit difficult to believe, but Arkansas has a better three-point percentage than Illinois.
On 24.8 attempts per game, it will enter the NCAA Tournament shooting 30.9% from deep. That mark ranks 336th nationally.
The Fighting Illini are also No. 68 in three-point attempt rate at 41.9% — 14th highest among teams in the tournament field.
Mayer, 6-9, leads the team in made threes with 67, and he has knocked them down at a 33.8% clip. Shannon is second in perimeter makes with 50 on 32.7%.
Illinois has two other players — Hawkins and 6-2 guard Jayden Epps — who have made 35 or more triples, but both are under 31% for the season.
The Fighting Illini have made 10-plus three-pointers in a game 7 times, but 5 of those performances came in November and December. They have shot under 33% from deep in 22 of 32 games.
Illinois is 12-10 in those games.
Mayer is Shannon’s wingman
Arkansas fans may remember Mayer from the 2021 Elite Eight against Baylor.
During the Bears’ 81-72 victory, the forward finished with 7 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals in 20 minutes. Baylor outscored the Razorbacks by six points with the energy reserve in the lineup.
If that does not ring a bell, there is a chance fans know of him through a recent interview in which he stated he missed multiple days of practice due to caffeine poisoning. He bounced back, though, and delivered a 24-point outing during Illinois’ 91-87 double-overtime home victory over Michigan in his next game.
One of two Fighting Illini players to start all 32 games, Mayer is second on the team in scoring at 12.8 points per game on 41.4% from the field. He is also third in total rebounds with 175 and first with 143 defensive boards.
Like Shannon, he is crafty in terms of his ability to create contact and get to the line. KenPom data shows he is seventh among Big Ten players at 4.9 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and he is a 74.3% foul shooter.
“His footwork defies logic a little bit,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said last month, “in terms of it's just so unorthodox. And then that step-back at 6-foot-9? Yeah, that's why they all like him at the next level.
“He's 6-foot-9 and can go get a shot on anybody and have a pretty good chance of making it.”
Versatility makes Mayer a challenge. He is fourth on the team in assists (37) and steals (26), and has a team-high 40 blocks.
In 10 career NCAA Tournament games, he has averaged 8.6 points on 50% shooting and 38.7% from three-point range. He averaged 16 points during Baylor’s two-game NCAA Tournament stay in 2022 and shot 50% beyond the arc.
Underwood looking to get past first weekend
Underwood, in his sixth season with the Fighting Illini, has led the program to three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths.
Since finishing under .500 in his first two seasons, the Fighting Illini have won at least 20 games in each of the last four. They have won an average of 22 games during that span.
But Illinois fans are ready for one of his teams to have a breakthrough in the NCAA Tournament.
Two seasons ago, the Fighting Illini earned a No. 1 seed and had a pair of national player of the year pieces as headliners. The team lost in the second round to Loyola Chicago.
Last season, Illinois was given a No. 4 seed and needed a pair of free throws with 12 seconds remaining to beat Tennessee-Chattanooga in the first round. Houston then sent the Fighting Illini home in the second round with a convincing 68-53 victory.
Underwood is making his seventh NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach. From 2014-17, he took Stephen F. Austin to the tournament three times and Oklahoma State once.
“No real past (with Underwood) other than just kind of watching his teams and understanding that his teams play with toughness,” Musselman said. “The Big Ten is a very, very physical league — lot of close games, obviously, in the Big Ten.
“They’ve been tested throughout the course of the season as well.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.