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, Illini will lean on vets in NCAA Tournament
Arkansas guard Davonte Davis looks for an opening, Thursday, March 17, 2022, during the first half of the first round of the 2022 NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Championship at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas-Illinois is among the more intriguing first-round matchups in this year’s NCAA Tournament for a number of reasons.
Perhaps chief among them is that it pits a pair of the least-experienced teams in major conferences against one another.
According to KenPom data, the Illini have the sixth-least Division I experience in the tournament field at 1.35 years on average. The Razorbacks are not far behind — 11th among tournament teams — at 1.53 years.
There will be plenty of newness on both sides this week in Des Moines, Iowa.
“[A lot of players] don't know what to expect,” Arkansas junior guard Davonte Davis said Sunday. “Even some of the new guys haven't been in this position to be going to March Madness. I talked to them and told them it's going to be fun.
“But it's also going to be tough, hard-nosed basketball.”
Arkansas will likely lean heavily on Davis this time around. He has played in eight NCAA Tournament games the last two seasons. He has averaged 11 points on 46.3% shooting, 4.8 rebounds. 1.9 assists and 0.9 steals in those games.
Wichita State transfer Ricky Council and forward Kamani Johnson are the only other Razorbacks who have logged minutes in the NCAA Tournament. Council played 8 minutes against Drake in 2021 with the Shockers, and Johnson received 4 total minutes against Gonzaga and Duke last season.
Johnson did not play in Arkansas’ wins over Vermont and New Mexico State last year in Buffalo, N.Y., and he was inactive during the 2021 run to the Elite Eight after transferring from Arkansas-Little Rock.
Freshman guard Anthony Black said Davis and Johnson throughout the season relayed to teammates the challenges of making the 68-team field and what they can expect once in it.
“[They said] it’s not easy to even get there and then to make a run,” Black said Sunday. “They've been preaching that. It's going to be hard and we're going to have to stick together as a team and try to do anything we can do to win.
“Every game is going to be competitive. Every year you see upsets. Every team that made the tournament is in there for a reason, so every game is going to be good. It's going to be a packed gym most of the time. The environment is going to be great.
“It should just be fun playing in it and it should be competitive.”
Six of Arkansas’ top eight players in terms of minutes played do not have NCAA Tournament experience.
Like the Razorbacks, Illinois will rely on its tournament vets in guard Terrence Shannon and wing Matthew Mayer. Between them, they have played in 15 NCAA Tournament games, but all at Texas Tech and Baylor, respectively. Both played during post-season games against Arkansas in 2021.
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Coleman Hawkins, a 6-10 forward, has played in three tournament games with the Illini and been active for another. He had 10 points and 8 rebounds during Illinois’ 54-53 first-round victory over Tennessee-Chattanooga last season.
“We’ve had some guys a part of this thing and some guys who have no clue what’s next, what’s coming,” Hawkins said Sunday. “[My advice is] just go out and focus on the game you’re playing in, not getting ahead of yourself and playing as hard as you can. I think sometimes during the season you kind of get stuck going through the motions, but you can’t do that when you’re here.
“Everything matters. Just getting the message across that we have to go as hard as we can every day and not take the opportunity for granted. Just go out and want to win, have the desire to go out and win it all.”
Shannon added that treating an NCAA Tournament game like any other game is key. But that is easier said than done.
He has averaged 12.2 points, 1.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.6 turnovers in 5 career tournament games. Shannon has a pair of 20-point performances in the event, including against Arkansas in the second round two years ago.
Illinois has six players who have seen the floor in NCAA Tournament games.
“I think with experience comes a better understanding,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said Sunday. “We have some guys that have figured out second weekends and third weekends, and we’ve got some guys that have felt what it’s like to lose, because it’s hard in that locker room when you lose.
“We’re young, we’re new. We’ve got nine new guys. We’re one of the youngest teams in the Power 5. With that comes adversity and some speed bumps....We’re just going to let our hair down and go.”
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