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3 keys to an Illinois win over Arkansas

The Illini need to start fast against the Hogs.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re officially a day away from tip-off between Illinois and Arkansas!

While this Illinois season was far from smooth sailing, the Illini will have a chance to rewrite their story over the next few weeks.

Up first, they’ll have to get past an Arkansas team that in a lot of ways, mirrors themselves. Talent galore, potential through the roof, but a season marred with inconsistency and frustration.

So what do the Illini need to do on Thursday afternoon to make sure their tournament stay doesn’t end after one day?

Avoid a slow start

Seems like this is something that’s been discussed for a month at this point.

The Illini have found themselves behind early far too often. In fact, they’ve trailed by double-digits in the first half of four of their last five games entering the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

While they have shown an ability to dig themselves out of early holes, sometimes in improbable fashion, that’s not a winning formula when it comes to the postseason.

Illinois needs to find a way to start fast and not have to play from behind against this talented Razorback team; otherwise, things could get ugly in a hurry.

To do so, Illinois is going to have to take care of the basketball. Arkansas is capable of turning teams over and ranks 54th in the country in tempo entering the tournament as a result. If the Illini allow them to get out in transition early, it’s hard to imagine them not digging another deep hole.

It’s win or go home time. There’s no reason for this team to come out flat. Illinois needs to jump out to an early lead for once.

Attack the basket

Illinois ranks 65th among the 68-team tournament field in 3-point shooting at 30.9%.

The good news? Arkansas’ 31.7% ranks 62nd.

This game is going to be won in the paint and Illinois needs to be relentless attacking the basket.

NCAA Basketball: Continental Tire Main Event Championship Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

While the Razorbacks overall have been strong at defending the paint this season, they’ve shown some vulnerability of late. Texas A&M was able to knock them out of the SEC Tournament quarterfinals with just one three made and lived inside during their 13-point second half comeback.

In their last 6 losses, Arkansas’ opponents have taken an average of just 14 threes per game. That should be around the number Illinois is at after 40 minutes.

The Illini should be able to get to the free throw line as well, as Arkansas surrenders the 4th-most free throws of any team in the tournament.

Illinois needs to resist the temptation of letting it fly from three. Eric Musselman is undoubtedly going to funnel them to the 3-point line, but the Illini need to be aggressive getting downhill and playing through contact. Terrence Shannon Jr. and Jayden Epps specifically need to live at the rim.

Stars play like stars

In March, your best players have to show up.

For Illinois, that’s Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

These are two guys that have plenty of tournament experience — Mayer has won a national title and Shannon played in the Sweet 16 last season. That experience will be relied upon by this young Illini team.

When Shannon and Mayer are both on, it’s been a winning formula. Problem is, that hasn’t happened particularly often. It’s going to have to happen on Thursday if Illinois if going to get past Arkansas.

Shannon, the Big Ten’s leader in free throw rate, should be able to live at the line if he’s aggressive out of the gate. The Illini can’t afford for him to disappear at any point in the game, as he’s tended to do at times during the regular season.

Mayer is the Illini’s most proven shot maker and that’s of the utmost importance in March. He needs to be confident and willing to take big shots, while also smart enough to not force tough ones.

Ultimately, Illinois will go as far as its two veterans will lead them.