Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Marching in: Arkansas gets Illinois in 8-9 matchup
Arkansas players, coaches, cheerleaders and fans call the hogs, Sunday, March 12, 2023, after it was revealed the Razorbacks will be a no. 8 seed and play Illinois in the NCAA National Tournament during a Selection Sunday watch party at Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas coach Eric Musselman met with the media on Sunday night immediately after the Razorbacks’ first-round opponent for the NCAA Tournament was announced, he already had been studying up on Illinois for several hours.
“I got the depth chart, I got the highlighted box score, conference box score,” Musselman said of the papers he held in his hands. “So yeah, some of us have been meeting for a long time this morning.”
The meeting time wasn’t wasted.
Arkansas (20-13) is the No. 8 seed in the West Region and will play No. 9 seed Illinois (20-12) at 3:30 p.m. Central on Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. The game will be televised on TBS.
Musselman said he and his staff met Sunday morning with the belief Illinois was one of two possible first-round opponents for Arkansas.
“It’s not worth saying,” Musselman said with a smile.
Musselman said that considering Arkansas lost freshman guard Nick Smith for 19 games because of a right knee issue and he’s now in the starting lineup, a No. 7 seed was the best-case scenario for the Razorbacks. A No. 9 seed, he added, was viewed as the worst-case scenario.
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“I think the 8 seed is very fair,” Musselman said. “That’s what we played our way into, so now you’ve got to go try to win an 8-9 game.”
The Arkansas-Illinois winner likely will play No. 1 West seed Kansas (27-7) in a second-round game on Saturday. The Jayhawks, who play No. 16 seed Howard on Thursday, are 15-0 in previous games as a No. 1 seed.
“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.”
Jay Wright, who led Villanova to national championships in 2016 and 2018 and a fourth Final Four appearance last season before retiring, now works for CBS as an analyst.
“I like Arkansas here against Illinois,” Wright said on the selection show when the matchup was announced. “If Arkansas can get past Illinois — which is going to be a great game — they match up with Kansas really well.
“Their length and speed, Nick Smith playing now like he is, they could give Kansas a problem right there in a second-round game.”
Illinois went 11-9 in the Big Ten to tie for fifth, then lost to Penn State 79-76 in the Illini’s Big Ten Conference opener.
The Illini are in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year under Coach Brad Underwood.
“Certainly Illinois is really well-coached,” Musselman said.
Musselman said he doesn’t know Underwood personally, but has watched his teams over the years and that they play with toughness.
“The Big Ten is a very, very physical league,” Musselman said. “A lot of close games, obviously, in the Big Ten, so they’ve been tested throughout the course of the season.”
The Razorbacks held an NCAA Tournament selection show watch party at Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Fayetteville.
When Arkansas’ name came up on the large screen TV the players, coaches and staff were watching, they erupted in cheers.
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“It was exciting just being in there with my teammates, seeing what we’ve been working for from the summer until now,” Razorbacks freshman guard Anthony Black said. “Growing up, I think everybody really watches the tournament, whether you play or not.
“Just to get our name called and to be a part of it is special. It’s a good opportunity for us to win some games.”
Arkansas is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the 36th time and for a third consecutive season for the first time since 2006-2008.
The Razorbacks are 48-34 in NCAA Tournament games and won the championship in 1994.
This is the sixth consecutive season in which the NCAA Tournament has been held — it was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic — that a Musselman-coached team has made the field.
Nevada was an NCAA Tournament from 2017-19 in Musselman’s last three seasons coaching the Wolf Pack before he was hired at Arkansas.
“Unless you’ve coached or played in the NCAA, I don’t think you really know how hard it is to make this tournament,” Musselman said. “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.
“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.”
Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis has been on all three of Musselman’s NCAA Tournament teams with Arkansas.
“It’s fun, for sure,” Davis said of playing in the NCAA Tournament again. “Just knowing it’s my third time, and seeing [Arkansas’ name] pop up for the third time is exciting and I know the guys are excited because a lot of them have not been in this position. I’m excited for them as well.”
Musselman said he and his staff would continue scouting Illinois on Sunday night after getting an early start that morning.
“Break down with our coaching staff on their style and what they do offensively, defensively,” Musselman said. “What they do with special teams, on sideline out of bounds, baseline out of bounds.
“Then we’ll try to start formulating the game plan.”
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