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.
Arkansas, Illinois help pad conference totals
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is shown during an SEC Tournament game against Texas A&M on Friday, March 10, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
FAYETTEVILLE — Playing in the SEC and Big Ten, the University of Arkansas and Illinois basketball teams got plenty of experience facing NCAA Tournament teams leading into their first-round West Region matchup.
The Razorbacks (20-13) and Illini (20-12), who meet at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, are among 16 teams from the SEC and Big Ten in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
The SEC and Big Ten each have eight teams to tie for the most of any conference. The Big 12 is third with seven.
For the SEC, it matches the most by the conference, which also had eight teams in 2018. The Big Ten is one shy of its NCAA Tournament record nine teams in 2021.
SEC regular-season and tournament champion Alabama is a No.1 seed in the South Region. Purdue, which won Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, is the No. 1 seed in the East Region.
Other SEC teams along with Alabama and Arkansas are Texas A&M, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State.
Big Ten teams in addition to Purdue and Illinois are Indiana, Michigan State, Iowa, Maryland, Northwestern and Penn State.
“The Big Ten’s the best league in the country in my opinion,” Illini Coach Brad Underwood said. “It has been for some time.
“I feel like playing in this conference definitely helps prepare you for the postseason.”
Arkansas is 9-11 against SEC teams and 4-9 against those that made the NCAA Tournament. Illinois is 11-10 against Big Ten opponents, including 2-9 against NCAA Tournament teams.
“You look at our schedule overall in the SEC, it was as difficult as any conference schedule in all of college basketball,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “Then you add in the fact who we played at the end.
“Really hard games, even the two games that we played in the SEC Tournament.”
Arkansas’ last five games were against NCAA Tournament teams with the Razorbacks losing to Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky to close the regular season, then at the SEC Tournament beating Auburn and losing to Texas A&M.
“It’s extremely competitive,” Arkansas junior guard Davonte Davis said of the SEC. “There are a lot of guys that go from one year, two years in the SEC to the NBA. There’s a lot of talent, and it shows.”
The SEC had 12 players picked in the 2021 NBA Draft, including Arkansas guard Moses Moody at No. 14 by Golden State. Razorbacks forward Jaylin Williams was among eight SEC players drafted last year when Oklahoma City made him the No. 34 pick.
The Big Ten had a combined 16 players drafted the previous two years.
A 2023 USA Today mock NBA Draft projects the SEC will have six players picked, including Arkansas freshman guards Anthony Black and Nick Smith in the top 10 and junior guard Ricky Council in the second round. Five Big Ten players are projected draft picks.
“I think it’s a good reflection on the league and how competitive and tough it is to be in the SEC,” Black said of the conference having eight NCAA Tournament teams. “I think playing against teams like that really just makes us better.
“You don’t really see an SEC game and be like, ‘That’s an easy win.’ It’s good for us going into the tournament.”
Underwood said he’s glad to be preparing to play a team that isn’t in the Big Ten.
“There’s a freshness to it,” Underwood said. “I’m pretty excited to go watch [the Razorbacks] on tape, and I’m not watching Penn State or Purdue or Indiana. You’re excited to go see what they’re doing and what they’re about.”
Illinois went 0-3 against Penn State, including a 79-76 loss in a first-round Big Ten Tournament game in Chicago.
“You guys have to get over that, ‘It’s Penn State,’ ” Underwood, talking with Illinois media, said in reference to Penn State being known for football but not basketball. “They’ve probably got three pros. I mean, they’re really good. And they’re very, very old.”
There are three SEC-Big Ten first-round NCAA Tournament matchups. In addition to the Arkansas-Illinois game, Texas A&M plays Penn State in Des Moines and Auburn plays Iowa in Birmingham, Ala.
“Getting eight in is unbelievable,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said of the SEC’s representation. “That’s what we try to get.
“There’s teams all over this bracket capable of making a run. Therefore we have a lot of teams in the SEC that could advance.”
Four SEC teams — Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — played in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 when John Calipari became the Wildcats’ coach, though Missouri and Texas A&M also made the field that season as Big 12 members.
“When I walked in here, there were five or six teams that were practicing at the women’s gym,” Calipari said. “And they were flying commercial everywhere, including recruiting.”
All SEC teams now travel to road games on chartered aircraft and most have practice facilities.
“You got terrific coaches. You got great facilities,” Calipari said. “You got commitments to basketball that wasn’t there [a few years ago].
“Now, think about it: Eight teams in. And not only eight teams in. Eight teams have a chance to win the national title.
“That’s the kind of league you want to be in.”
Texas, which made the NCAA Tournament under interim Coach Rodney Terry and could meet Texas A&M in a second-round game in Des Moines, will join the SEC along with Oklahoma for the 2024-25 season. UCLA and USC, both NCAA Tournament teams, will leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten next season.
So the SEC and Big Ten soon figure to become even stronger and deeper in basketball.
“The talent level of players in the SEC, the coaching level, the fan bases [keep improving],” said Musselman, who is in his fourth season at Arkansas. “This year is the biggest crowds that I’ve seen since I’ve been in the SEC when we went on the road.
“Almost every building that we played in on the road was sold out with maybe the possible exception of South Carolina.
“So our team has been challenged all year, and we’ll be challenged against a team like Illinois as well.”
SEC in NCAA Tournament
The SEC this year has matched its record of eight teams in the NCAA Tournament. Here is a rundown with teams listed by their seedings and opponent.
Alabama — No. 1 seed South vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Tennessee — No. 4 East vs. (13) Louisiana-Lafayette
Kentucky — No. 6 East vs. (11) Providence
Texas A&M — No. 7 Midwest vs. (10) Penn State
Missouri — No. 7 South vs. (10) Utah State
Arkansas — No. 8 West vs. (9) Illinois
Auburn — No. 9 Midwest vs. (8) Iowa
Mississippi State — No. 11 Midwest vs. (11) Pittsburgh — lost 60-59 on Tuesday
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