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.
Hogs to face Illinois in first round of NCAA Tournament
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman (left), Arkansas guard Davonte Davis (right) and others call the Hogs, Sunday, March 12, 2023, during a Selection Sunday watch party at Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is bound for the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season under Eric Musselman.
After a regular season upended by injuries and littered with ups and downs, the Razorbacks learned Sunday they are a No. 8 seed in the West Region and will play No. 9 Illinois in their opening game in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday. Tipoff is set for 3:30 p.m. Central on TBS.
More from WholeHogSports: What to know about Arkansas-Illinois
The winner of Arkansas-Illinois will likely play No. 1 Kansas on Saturday. The Jayhawks will play Howard in the first round.
“Illinois is really well coached,” Musselman said Sunday at the team's watch party at Walk-Ons in Fayetteville. “Some guys (on the roster) that we’ve played before. They’ve got some really good transfers. It’s an excellent shot-blocking team.
“Anybody out of the Big Ten that qualifies for the NCAA Tournament is a really good team.”
Illinois finished the regular season with a 20-12 overall record and 11-9 mark in Big Ten play. The Fighting Illini then lost 79-76 to Penn State in their first game in the conference tournament.
Sixth-year head coach Brad Underwood has led Illinois 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 been eliminated in the second round in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
Illinois’ top two scorers are transfers from Big 12 programs. Terrence Shannon (Texas Tech) has averaged a team-high 17.1 points, and Matthew Mayer (Baylor) is second at 12.8 points per game.
The Fighting Illini are the top shot-blocking team in the Big Ten, averaging 5.5 per game. Their 111 blocks in conference play were 21 more than second most in the league.
Illinois finished fourth in the league with 5.7 steals per game.
Arkansas has made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2006-08.
“I don’t think that unless you’ve coached or played in the NCAA, I don’t think you know how hard it is to make this tournament,” Musselman said. “You can look when the brackets are finished all the great programs and all the teams with a lot of talent that aren’t in this tournament. It’s a hard one to get into. It should never get old for any coach, it should never get old for any family member of a coaching family, and certainly it shouldn’t get old for a player.
The Razorbacks (19-12 overall, 8-10 SEC) defeated Auburn 76-73 at the SEC Tournament and lost 67-61 to Texas A&M in the quarterfinal round Friday.
Arkansas is 3-6 in its last 9 games dating to Feb. 11, when freshman guard Nick Smith returned to the lineup from right knee management.
The Razorbacks are a No. 8 seed for the third time (2006 and 2017). In 2017, Arkansas defeated Seton Hall 77-71 in its first game then lost 72-65 to eventual national champion North Carolina in a controversial finish.
“We knew we were in the tournament based on the body of work that we did over the course of an entire college season,” Musselman added. “Our staff did a great job with the non-conference schedule. Without the non-conference schedule, that really, really helped position us not only to be in the tournament but be an 8 seed rather than maybe a lower seed than that.”
Arkansas is 0-5 all-time against the Fighting Illini. The programs have not met since December 2004, when Illinois defeated the Razorbacks 72-60 in North Little Rock.
Arkansas freshman point guard Anthony Black said he is eager for his first NCAA Tournament experience. He is averaging 12.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, and leads the Razorbacks with 137 assists.
Black was an All-SEC second-team selection by the league’s coaches last week.
“We’ve got the talent, the coaching and now we’ve just got to put it all together,” Black said. “We’ve shown what we can do against the top teams. Even if we haven’t won the games, we’ve been pretty competitive in almost every game this season.
“It’s going to be about putting it all together at the right time and making a run.”
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