By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks are one one win away from advancing to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, but to get there they’ll need to upset defending national champion, 4th-ranked, and West Region No. 1-seed Kansas on Saturday in the Round of 32 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Hogs advanced to the Round of 32 by defeating Illinois, 73-63, on Thursday (game article complete with details and Eric Musselman quotes is linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=753851.0). Kansas advanced by defeating 16-seed Howard, 96-68, on Thursday.
The Hogs (20-13) and Jayhawks (28-7) are set to tip off at 4:10 p.m. CT on Saturday (CBS). Arkansas is 5-8 all-time against Kansas, including 0-1 in the NCAAT (91-82 loss to KU in the ’90-91 Elite Eight). The teams have not played since the ’05-06 season, a 65-64 KU win in the Maui Invitational. The teams had five common high-major opponents in ’22-23: Baylor, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Tennessee. The Hogs combined for a 3-4 record against that group while the Jayhawks were 5-2.
Historically, No. 1 seeds win their second-round matchups greater than 80% of the time. Arkansas in last year’s NCAAT upset the No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in the third round (a.k.a. the Sweet 16 / regional semifinals).
The two programs each have a rich history in the NCAAT as well as recent marks of excellence with Arkansas advancing to back-to-back NCAAT Elite Eights and Kansas coming off winning the national championship a season ago. Each team has now advanced to three consecutive NCAAT Round of 32 matchups, and each team has veteran players who contirbuted to past deep NCAAT runs.
From a talent and athleticism standpoint there’s not much separation if any between the Razorbacks and Jayhawks, but from a cohesive-unit-translating-to-wins perspective, Kansas has been the superior team. Both teams use tight 7-8 player rotations with Kansas having a decided edge in players with same-program experience.
Arkansas’ roller-coaster season is a reflection the team’s collective problem-areas in three-point shooting, turnovers, free throw shooting, and excessive fouling that have led to leads, including double-digit leads, fading away into losses as part of a 10-th-place finish in the 14-team SEC. Arkansas (final NET ranking of 21) sports a 2-2 record in the last four games that it held double-digit leads, but the Hogs have won 2 of their last 3 games and they’re 6-2 overall in neutral-site matchups (includes 3-2 against current NCAAT teams).
Kansas, on the other hand, won arguably the best conference in college basketball, the Big 12, with a 13-5 record. The Jayhawks finished at No. 9 in NET and they’re also 9th according to KenPom.com‘s analytics (No. 7 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 24 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Defensively, Kansas forces 14.4 turnovers per game while ranking 54th in Division 1 in overall defensive field goal percentage as they limit teams to 41.5% from the field. On offense, the Jayhawks are one of the best passing teams in college basketball (16.6 assists per game ranks 12th in D1), and they are plus-4.3 in per-game assists-to-turnovers. Team shooting splits of 46.7%/34.6%/72.0% are solid but not elite.
The Hogs will need to be good not only with individual defensive assignments, but also in communication and execution in help rotations and close-outs as Kansas is crafty in off-ball movement, offsetting to create open looks, drives to kickouts and dump-downs, and timely cuts to the basket. Transition is another area Arkansas had to be sound defensively. On offense, the turnover-prone Hogs must find a way to be competitive in the giveaway department as well as limit their three-point shot attempts that teams give them by either playing zone defenses or sagging off to protect the paint in man-to-man. Free throw shooting has often been Arkansas’ undoing, but the Hogs were elite at the foul line in the second half against Illinois (15-of-17, including 9-of-10 in the final 1:18 of the game).
Will KU head coach Bill Self be back on the sideline? His health kept him off the sidelines of the Howard game with uncertainty if two more days is enough additional recovery time for him to lead his team against the Hogs.
Fourth-year 6-8 junior Jalen Wilson has been a star (20.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steal, 42.8% field goals, 33.7% from 3, 79.8% free throws). Freshman 6-8 wing Grady Dick is an elite three-point shooter (82-of-203 for 40.4%) who presents a matchup nightmare because he is active and effective in so many aspects of the game: 14.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 85.4% free throw shooter. Senior 6-6 guard and Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar, Jr., and junior 6-1 guard Dajuan Harris, Jr., pack a lot of NCAAT experience, and sophomore 6-7 forward KJ Adams, Jr., is a highly efficient double-figure scorer who combines strength, quickness, and athleticism to counter-balance his lack of height as the team’s frontline anchor.
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From Sunday, March 12, 2023
By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks are the 8-seed and will face 9-seed Illinois in the first round of the NCAA Tournament West Region on Thursday (3:30 p.m. CT, TBS) in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Hogs (20-13) are 0-5 all-time against the Illini (20-12), but the teams have never met in the NCAAT. The last time they played was in 2004-2005. The teams had a single common opponent during the 2022-23 regular season — Missouri — with Arkansas splitting the season home-and-away series in close games and the Illini getting drummed, 93-71, in a non-conference rivalry game played on a neutral floor in December in St. Louis.
The winner of the Arkansas-Illinois matchup will face the Thursday first-round winner between the tournament’s third overall No. 1 seed, Kansas (27-7), and 16-seed Howard (22-12), a game that is also being played in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I like Arkansas here against Illinois,” CBS college basketball analyst and former Villanova head coach Jay Wright said during the network’s Selection Sunday telecast. “They matchup with Kansas really well. Their length and speed, Nick Smith now playing like he is, they could give Kansas a problem right there, second round game.”
The Hoop Hogs have now made the NCAAT in three consecutive seasons (each with a top-half of bracket seeding) and it’s their sixth NCAAT at-large bid in their last nine campaigns while notching their 35th NCAAT appearance in program history. Arkansas is 6-11 this season against NCAAT teams with the wins coming against San Diego State, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Missouri, Auburn, and North Carolina-Asheville.
The Razorbacks finished with a strong NCAA NET ranking (No. 21) despite recent struggles as they were generally garnering NCAAT 8-seed projections heading into Selection Sunday with a 4-10 record in Quad-1 games, 4-2 in Q2, and 12-1 in Q3/4.
“Unless you coached or played in the NCAA, I don’t think you really know how hard it is to make this tournament,” fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman said on Sunday after learning of his team’s NCAAT fate. “You can look when the brackets are finished at all the great programs and all the teams with a lot of talent that aren’t in this tournament. So it’s a hard one to get into, and it should never get old for any coach. It should never get old for any family member of a coaching family. It certainly shouldn’t get old for any player.”
While its overall body of work was solid, Arkansas lost 4 of its last 5 games as part of a 6-losses-in-9-games skid going into the NCAAT, although the team did reach its fourth consecutive 20-win season under Musselman. The Hogs are 4-2 in neutral-site games this season (5-2 if you count their win over Missouri Valley Conference champion Bradley in North Little Rock in December).
The Razorbacks are coming off a 1-1 finish in the SEC Tournament as the league’s No. 10 seed — a 76-73 win over 7-seed Auburn in the second round on Thursday followed by a 67-61 loss to 2-seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Eight SEC teams were invited to the Dance: Overall No. 1-seed Alabama (South Region), 4-seed Tennessee (East Region), 6-seed Kentucky (East Region), 7-seed Texas A&M (Midwest Region), 7-seed Missouri (South Region), 8-seed Arkansas (West Region), 9-seed Auburn (Midwest Region), and First Four play-in 11-seed Mississippi State (Midwest Region).
The Hogs are the only SEC team to NOT share a regional bracket with another league foe.
Musselman is 93-41 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 4-3 record in SECT play and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
Arkansas is 48-34 all-time in the NCAAT with one national championship, one national runner-up, 6 Final Fours, 11 Elite Eights, and 13 Sweet 16s.
Scouting Illinois from the Big Ten
Illini head coach Brad Underwood led his squad to 11-9 in the Big Ten for a seventh-place finish, but it lost its B10 tournament first-round game to Penn State as the Nittany Lions would make it to the conference tourney finals on Sunday.
Making its 33rd NCAAT (two fewer than Arkansas) with 42 NCAAT victories (6 fewer than Arkansas), Illinois (NET No. 34) is in the Dance for a third-consecutive season (same as Arkansas). The Illini were defeated in the Round of 32 a season ago by Houston.
Versatile senior 6-6 transfer wing Terrence Shannon, Jr. — he was a Texas Tech Red Raider who notched 20 points when then-3-seed Arkansas defeated then-6-seed Tech in the Round of 32 in the ’20-21 NCAAT in Indianapolis — was named first-team All-Big Ten in ’22-23 as he led the team in scoring with 17.1 points to go with 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.3 steals in 32.1 minutes per game while shooting 44.0% from the field, including 32.7% from 3, and 79.2% free throws. He scored 30 points in an early-season non-conference win over Monmouth and had 10 games of scoring 20 or more points.
Senior 6-9 forward and Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer is averaging 12.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 assists in 26.7 minutes per game while shooting 41.4% fromthe field, including 33.8% from 3, and 74.3% from the foul line. He also matched up and was productive against Arkansas in that ’20-21 NCAAT when the top-seeded and eventual national champion Bears defeated the Razorbacks in the Elite Eight (a.k.a the Region championship games).
Junior 6-10 forward Coleman Hawkins can stretch the floor as a face-up shooter out to the three-point line, and he’s averaging 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds (leads the team), 3.0 assists (leads the team), and 1.2 blocks in 32.4 minutes per contest while shooting 44.4% from the field, including 27.8% from 3, and 60.3% from the free throw line. Sophomore 6-9 big man Dain Dainja weighs in at 270 pounds and is averaging 9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 in 20.5 minutes per game while shooting 63.7% from the field and 52.6% from the free throw line.
Freshman 6-2 guard Jayden Epps had missed two games in concussion protocol before returning for two minutes of playing time against Penn State in the Big 10 tournament. Epps is averaging 9.7 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists in 25.2 minutes per game while shooting 41.8% from the field, including 30.3% from 3, and 77.8% from the free throw line.
Mayer (67), Shannon (50), Epps (37), and Hawkins (35) have combined to knock down 189 three-pointers for Illinois, although as a team the Illini are making triples at only a 30.9% clip.
Illinois ranks top 50 in Division 1 in both defensive rebounds (26.6 per game) and total rebounds (37.9), and its top 75 in offensive rebounds (11.3).
Offensively, Illinois ranks 22nd in D1 in two-point field goal efficiency (55.3%) but it’s one of the worst in three-point shooting efficiency (30.9%) and free throw percentage (68.0%). Defensively, the Illini rank 2nd in D1 in blocks per game (5.7), 19th in two-point field goal percentage defense (45.3%), 41st in opposition’s made three-pointers per game (6.1), and 58th in overall field goal percentage defense (41.7%).
The Illini typically go 8-deep in their gam-to-game player rotation. According to KenPom.com analytics, Illinois ranks No. 33 in D1 (32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency and 58th in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Recapping Arkansas’ 2022-23 season
The Hogs went unbeaten in their 4-game European exhibition tour in August, they went 1-1 in their October exhibition season, 11-2 in non-conference play including a 2-1 / third-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii in November, and 8-10 in the SEC regular-season before splitting two games in the SEC Tournament.
The best stretch of games for the Hogs came in the middle of league play when Arkansas won five consecutive SEC games capped by the team’s best win of the season — an 88-73 road win over Kentucky in early February.
The team struggled all season with turnovers, poor free throw shooting, poor three-point shooting, fouling, inconsistency on defense, and losing its grip on double-digit leads.
Freshman guard Anthony Black (12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 46.5% field goals, 31.0% three-pointers, 69.6% free throws) and junior guard Ricky Council IV (team-leading 15.9 points per game, 3.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 44.5% field goals, 27.2% three-pointers, 77.4% free throws) authored all-leafgue seasons (more on that down the page), as did Hog veteran guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (10.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 41.2% field goals, 34.4% three-pointers, 70.2% free throws).
Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., returned from a two-month, 13-game absence due to right knee management and competed in Arkansas’ last 9 games (he’s played in a total of 14 games in ’22-23). Smith’s second on the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game to go with 2.0 assists and 1.8 rebounds while shooting 39.1% from the field, including 34.4% from 3, and 73.9% from the free throw line. The Hogs were not as lucky with sophomore forward Trevon Brazile (11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 48.1% field goals, including 37.9% from 3, and 67.7% free throws) who was lost for the season (knee injury) in non-conference play in early December.
The Razorbacks’ frontline quintet of freshman 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh and senior big men Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Kamani Johnson, and Jalen Graham have mostly been solid in supporting roles with Walsh and Makhi Mitchell playing and producing the most out of that group.
Linked are Hogville’s game articles for Arkansas’ 2 SECT games, 31 regular-season contests, plus 6 exhibition games (4 in Europe in August and 2 in October): https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=744358.0
Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors
Arkansas landed a trio of Razorbacks on the SEC coaches’ 2022-23 postseason all league teams that were announced on Monday, March 6: Freshman guard Anthony Black was named second-team All SEC as well as SEC All Freshman team; junior guard Ricky Council IV was named second-team All SEC; and junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis was named to the SEC All Defensive team.
On Tuesday, March 7, Council was also named to the Associated Press’ All SEC second team.
Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was twice named SEC Freshman of the week with two national FOW honors as well. He avgeraged 25.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.0 steal while shooting 48.6% from the field, including 63.6% from 3, and 77.8% at the free throw line as the Razorbacks split games against Georgia (Feb. 21) and Alabama (Feb. 25). Prior to that, Smith was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy in early December after leading the then-No. 9 Hoop Hogs in combined scoring (21.5 points per game) to go with 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in the team’s wins over UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 6) and Oklahoma (Dec. 10).
Council was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball. He was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 71% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 100% at the free throw line to pace the Hoop Hogs in wins over Troy (Nov. 28) and San Jose State (Dec. 3).
Black was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 55% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 86% at the free throw line in the Hoop Hogs’ 2-1 run / 3rd-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii (Nov. 21-23). Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.
On March 2, Arkansas freshman guard Derrian Ford was named to the SEC Men’s Basketball Community Service Team. As an education major, Ford has worked with the Extra Yard for Teachers. He’s also supported several children’s charities such as the First Tee Golf Event; the Children’s Safety Center, which empowers children to overcome abuse; the Yvonne Richardson Center Bike Giveaway, which gave away 100 bikes over two days; and the Miracles and Magic Radiothon for NWA Children’s Hospital, which helped kids and their families access to the best pediatric care.
How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology
Arkansas has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time of the 2022-23 season that the Hoop Hogs were unranked.
As of Sunday, March 12, the Razorbacks ranked No. 21 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 4-10 record in Quad-1 games — a nuetral-site win over Auburn, a road win over Kentucky, a home win over Texas A&M, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, two losses to Alabama (home-and-away), two losses to Texas A&M (road and neutral site), a home loss to Kentucky, a road loss against Tennessee, neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a road loss against Baylor, and a road loss against Missouri; b) a 4-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Florida, a home loss against Mississippi State, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU counted as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 4th among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Tennessee, and No. 18 Texas A&M.
Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 14 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 22 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 19 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 16 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 51 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Arkansas was projected as a No. 8 seed on Sunday afternoon, March 12, in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s final forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.