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.
Hogs to see familiar faces from 2021 NCAA run
Illinois' Matthew Mayer (24) dribbles during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Rutgers, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Michael Allio)
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Eric Musselman will face Illinois for the first time when the Razorbacks play the Illini in an NCAA Tournament opener in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday, but he’s familiar with their top two scorers.
Illinois 6-6 senior guard Terrence Shannon and 6-9 senior forward Matthew Mayer both faced Musselman and Arkansas in the 2021 NCAA Tournament when they played for other teams.
Shannon, averaging 17.1 points, led Texas Tech with 20 points when the Razorbacks beat the Red Raiders 68-66 in a second-round game. He transferred to Illinois after playing three seasons at Texas Tech.
“Terrence Shannon, he’s just so versatile,” Musselman said. “He’s a lefty. He can score at many different levels.”
Against the Razorbacks two years ago, Shannon hit 6 of 16 shots, including 3 of 4 three-pointers, and made 5 of 5 free throws.
“He’s one of the best athletes in college basketball,” Musselman said. “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.”
Shannon has scored 20 or more points in 10 games, including 30 in the Illini’s 103-55 victory over Monmouth, 29 in a 79-70 victory over UCLA and 26 in a 62-66 victory over Northwestern. He’s hit 50 of 153 three-pointers (32.7%) and 156 of 197 free throws (79.2%).
More from WholeHogSports: Basketball Podcast of Mid-America – Analyzing Arkansas' matchup with Illinois in NCAA Tournament
“I like his game,” said Arkansas junior guard Davonte Davis, who played against Shannon and the Red Raiders in 2021. “I think he’s pretty good. His game has evolved.”
Mayer, averaging 12.8 points, played the previous four seasons at Baylor before transferring to Illinois.
A key reserve on the Bears’ 2021 national championship team, Mayer had 7 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals in Baylor’s 81-72 victory over Arkansas in an Elite Eight matchup.
Shannon and Mayer provide Illinois (20-12) with two go-to scorers.
“We built this team with that in mind for March,” Illini Coach Brad Underwood said of adding Shannon and Mayer through the transfer portal. “I learned a valuable lesson early on when I was [an assistant coach at Kansas State]. You better have somebody, when the game is on the line, who can go get a bucket. … Those guys can both do that.”
Mayer, who scored a career-high 26 points in the Illini’s 61-51 victory at Wisconsin, has hit 67 of 198 three-pointers (33.8%) and 78 of 105 free throws (74.3%) this season.
“The one thing I wanted to do was put him in position to be the guy or one of the guys and not in a secondary role,” Underwood said. “I love his talent.
“His talent is so unique. He’s an NBA talent. At 6-8, 6-9, whatever he is, and to have the ability to shoot it, have the ability to deck it. His shot block rate is through the roof.”
Mayer has 40 blocked shots.
“He’s probably an underrated defender,” Underwood said. “Yet, let’s put him in a sustained role to have to be counted on to be the guy. He was maybe not counted on as much [at Baylor], even though he was very talented, because there were other pros with him.”
Illinois 6-2 freshman guard Jayden Epps, averaging 9.7 points, is cleared to play against Arkanas after missing the previous two games in concussion protocol.
Shannon also missed two games earlier this season because of a concussion.
“It’s nice to have our team back,” Underwood said. “It’s nice to be going into this thing healthy.”
More from WholeHogSports: 5 things to know about Illinois, the Razorbacks' first-round matchup in Des Moines, Iowa
Other key players for Illinois include 6-10 junior forward Coleman Hawkins, averaging 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists; 6-9 sophomore Dain Dainja, averaging 9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds; and 6-7 sophomore RJ Melendez, averaging 5.9 points and 3.4 rebounds.
“When we’re playing connected, I think we’re one of the best teams in the country,” Hawkins said.
CBS analyst Jay Wright, who as Villanova’s coach led the Wildcats to national championships in 2016 and 2018 before retiring after last season, picked Arkansas to beat Illinois when the matchup was announced on Sunday.
“When we heard our name called, Jay Wright said he had Arkansas over us,” Shannon said. “So that’s already a chip we’ve got on our shoulder proving to people we belong here.”
The Illini, like Arkansas, are playing in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year.
“Selection Sunday to me is one of the greatest days of the year,” said Underwood, who has a 223-104 record in 10 seasons as a coach at Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State and Illinois with seven NCAA Tournament appearances. “I still remember as a kid writing all the names down before computers.
“There’s a sense of anxiety to hear your name called. It’s a day that personally I never take for granted. I hope none of our players do.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am for our players.”
Mayer and Shannon combined for 45 points in the Illini’s 91-87 double overtime victory against Michigan on March 2. Mayer had 24 points and Shannon 21.
“They both are really good ball players,” Michigan Coach Juwan Howard said. “I know Terrence Shannon. He’s from one of the best cities in the country, and that’s Chicago. I followed that young man and watched his growth.
“I watched [Mayer] win an NCAA title with Baylor.
“Illinois is very fortunate to have those two young guys who pose matchup problems for their opponent.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.