It’s the time of year we’ve all been waiting for, March Madness is here and the 9-seed Illini face off against 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks.
Both teams haven’t lived up to preseason expectations but have found a way to still make it to the Big Dance. It’s shaping up to being a true toss up game between two very talented teams.
Let’s take a look at few of the things we should watch out for in this high-profile matchup.
As we mentioned in our column on the path to the Sweet 16, Arkansas has a great coach in Eric Musselman. He’s led Arkansas to the Elite Eight the last two seasons and he’s known to get the most out of his team each time out.
On the other hand, Coach Underwood has caught flak from the fanbase for not making the necessary in-game adjustments to get Illinois to the second weekend, despite having the higher-ranked team both times.
If the only counter punch we have to Mussleman’s Razorbacks is to sub in Sencire Harris and run the press defense, Illinois will surely struggle to come out on top. Musselman will have more than one trick up his sleeve for this matchup, and it’s imperative that the Illini do as well.
This Razorbacks squad is stocked with talent — they have three 5-star freshmen in Nick Smith, Anthony Black, and Jordan Walsh, and an experienced transfer guard in Ricky Council IV. Smith and Black are projected to be lottery picks in most NBA Mock Drafts and Council IV has played himself onto the board as well by leading the Razorbacks in scoring this season after transferring from Wichita State.
All of these NBA prospects will be playing with extra motivation to impress scouts and boost their draft stock.
In March, all it takes is one guy to catch fire to send you home, and Arkansas has multiple guys that fit the bill. It’ll take Illinois’ best defensive effort to come out on top.
Sub-Par 3-Point Shooting
If you’ve been following the Illini this season, you know their achilles heel is teams with good perimeter shooting. They struggled to keep up with the best shooting teams in the Big Ten like Indiana, Ohio State, and Penn State, going a combined 1-6 against them this season. Thankfully, Arkansas struggles from deep — they only shot 32% from 3 this year, ranking 11th in the SEC.
Hopefully this means that Illinois will be able to keep pace with Arkansas on offense and keep the game within reach, because the Illini don’t have the three-point shooting prowess either to play catch up.
We’ll need the Illinois team that showed up against UCLA and Texas if they’re going to take down Arkansas and make it to Saturday. But if they do come out on top it’ll give them the momentum and confidence needed to make a run in the tourney.