DES MOINES, Iowa — More of the same. The cold, sloppy, miserable conditions outside Wells Fargo Arena mimicked the conditions inside, as the the 9-seed Illinois Fighting Illini (20-13, 11-9 B1G) fell to the 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks, 73-63, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
Illinois got off to a sluggish start — what a shocker! — shooting 8-for-29 (27.6%) and committing nine turnovers, allowing Arkansas to open up a 36-26 halftime lead.
And, yet again, Illinois seemed primed to stage another major comeback to begin the second half. A Coleman Hawkins three, followed by a Terrence Shannon lay-in and a pair of Hawkins free throws, shaved the Arkansas lead down to five, 41-36. However, the Razorbacks immediately answered with a 10-0 run to regain control.
The Fighting Illini mounted another rally later in the half; a 7-0 run capped off by an RJ Melendez jam cut Illinois’ defecit down to five with 2:30 remaining, prompting an Eric Musselman timeout. Following a Coleman Hawkins rebound, Arkansas’ Davonte Davis stole the ball and found Ricky Council IV for a transition layup. Luke Goode’s three was blocked on the ensuing possession, and Council made a pair of free throws to ice the game.
It’s been an ongoing tale this season — the Illini struggle early, wake up after halftime, charge back into contention. We’d seen them complete scintillating comebacks against UCLA, Texas, Northwestern & Michigan, but fall short against the likes of Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and now Arkansas.
It didn’t take a Mensa candidate to notice that Brad Underwood’s team looked disconnected for much of this season. But if you needed more proof, buckle up.
“We haven’t shot it amazing, but I still believe in the three-ball because we’re such a good offensive rebounding team. If we’re shooting threes at 30%, it’s not gonna kill us.”
Those were the words uttered by Matthew Mayer during Wednesday’s media session.
Fittingly, the Illini went 6-of-22 from beyond the arc — with Mayer finishing 0-for-5 — and the Razorbacks outrebounded Illinois 43-34, including 11-3 on the offensive glass.
And then there were these gems from Thursday’s postgame press conference. When asked about what the team learned about themselves to move forward, RJ Melendez said:
“For future seasons we just gotta not make these mistakes again, because it cost us last year as well. Simple mistakes. A lot of turnovers in the first half. We can’t let that happen, and we just gotta make sure we always stay connected as a team...and make sure we listen to Coach and everything he says, because he has a purpose for every single play. It’s our fault, kinda, because he’s calling them and we’re not listening to him or we’re not doing ‘em. So we gotta be better, listen better, and be mentally tougher.”
Here’s Terrence Shannon’s response to the same question:
“Something we can learn as a team is probably doing a better job of following Coach’s game plan. Throughout the year we had a lot of games where the Coach would tell us what the other team would do, and they would do it and it would be because of our mistakes.”
Whether you’re a Brad Underwood supporter or a Brad Underwood critic, those quotes will support your argument in either direction.
Coleman Hawkins was also very frank in his postgame comments:
Coleman Hawkins was visibly frustrated in the locker room following the Illini loss, apologizing for letting down the fans, taking blame for some of the teams faults, and added this:— Andy Olson (@WCIA3Andy) March 17, 2023
"It's not hard to swallow, it's expected when you don't move the ball, when you don't execute." pic.twitter.com/NOUWrZRpYs
It’s clear that major changes are afoot in Champaign, and this offseason will be pivotal. I’m not sure what it’ll take to satiate this fan base and I don’t know if I ever will be. If you ask 10 Illini fans what “success” means you’re likely to get 10 different responses. That’s another column for another day.
So...that’s it. No more Illini basketball until November. I’ll let you decide if that’s bad or good. But, hey. At least they didn’t lose to a 16-seed.