Arkansas basketball: Everything to know about the Illinois Fighting Illini

The Arkansas Razorbacks are back in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year, this time as an eight seed in the West region.

If the Razorbacks are going to go make history by reaching the Elite Eight for a third consecutive season, they’re going to have to go through the Illinois Fighting Illini on Thursday, first.

Illinois’ season very much mirrors that of Arkansas’ up-and-down year. The Fighting Illini were able to get some big wins early on against No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 1 seed Texas, but also has some questionable losses to No. 7 seed Missouri by 22 and No. 7 seed Penn State by 15.

They’re entering the tournament having lost three of their last four games, with the lone win coming against a Michigan team that missed the NCAA Tournament. Similarly, Arkansas is entering the tournament having lost four of their last five games. However, all five of those games were against teams that made the big dance.

Both teams are very closely rated on paper, which means it should be really great game on Thursday. Let’s take a closer look at the Illinois Fighting Illini ahead of their first round meeting with the Hogs.

Season overview

(Photo by Alex Martin – Journal-Courier)

Record: 20-12 (11-9 Big Ten)

Key Wins: vs. UCLA (W, 79-70), vs. Texas (W, 85-78), vs. Northwestern (W, 66-62)

Key Losses: vs. Virginia (L, 70-61), Maryland (L, 71-66), vs. Penn State (L, 74-59), vs. Missouri (L, 93-71)

Tale of the Tape: Arkansas vs. Illinois

(Photo by Steve Roberts – USA TODAY Sports)

One thing that has been mentioned numerous times since Selection Sunday is how even these teams are on paper. One look at a handful of key stats and it’s actually pretty incredible how closely Arkansas and Illinois mirror each other on paper. This could make for an instant classic on Thursday that’s only decided by a possession or two.
























Off. Rtg



Def. Rtg




Illinois head coach: Brad Underwood

(Photo by Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports)

Coaching Record: 223-105 Overall (114-78 at Illinois)


  • Seven NCAA Tournaments

  • 2021 Big Ten Tournament Championship

  • Third straight NCAA Tournament appearance at Illinois


Brad Underwood is a great coach partly due to his adaptability. Like [autotag]Eric Musselman[/autotag], he’s able to change his scheme to fit different roster makeups year-to-year. At the beginning of the season Illinois ran more of a five-out offense with a defense that switched everything. As the season went on, the Fighting Illini offense morphed into more of a traditional spread offense that absolutely thrives in transition.

Sound familiar?

Arkansas is very similar as they’re at their best when able to get out in transition and create chaos. Illinois is very athletic and disruptive on the defensive end which could mean trouble for Arkansas’ sometimes stagnant half-court offense.

Key player: Terrance Shannon Jr.

(Photo by Alex Martin – Journal-Courier)

Measurables: Senior – Guard – 6’6″ 225 lbs.

22-23 Season: 17.1 PPG (52.8 FG% / 32.7 3P%), 4.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.3 SPG

Scouting Report: Arkansas fans should be very familiar with Shannon, as he was part of Texas Tech’s Sweet 16 team in 2021 which lost to the Razorbacks. Shannon transferred from Texas Tech to Illinois this offseason and has thrived in an increase role with the Illini. He’s a very smooth and fluid lefty that has proven he can be a high-level scorer.

Shannon’s playmaking has also greatly improved this year, most notably his passing. When he’s out in transition, he’s a human highlight reel similar to [autotag]Ricky Council[/autotag]. Arkansas will have to make him uncomfortable defensively. That consists of forcing him to use his right hand and forcing him to take tough, contested shots all game.

Key player: Matthew Mayer

(Photo by Ron Johnson – USA TODAY Sports)

Measurables: Fifth-year Senior – Forward – 6’9″ 225 lbs.

22-23 Season: 12.8 PPG (41.4 FG% / 33.8 3P%), 5.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.3 BPG

Scouting Report: Another player that Arkansas fans should be familiar with is Matthew Mayer. Mayer recorded 7 points and 3 steals as part of the Baylor team that knocked the Razorbacks out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight.

After winning a national championship with Baylor, Mayer transferred to Illinois this past offseason looking for a fresh start. He’s had a very up-and-down season, which is somewhat reflective of this Illinois team as a whole this year.

Mayer has scored 20+ points in six games this season and the Illini are 5-1 in those games. At 6-foot-9, when he’s able to get going from deep there’s really not much that teams can do – other than hope he misses. However, his shot selection and decision-making hasn’t been the best and has led to some frustrating nights. After scoring 24 points in their penultimate regular season game vs. Michigan, Mayer has scored just 23 points in their last two games combined, while also going just 1-15 from three.

Arkansas needs to be aggressive and physical when it comes to defending Mayer. Make his deep shots difficult by contesting everything and keep him from getting to the basket, where he’s a very capable finisher. On the offensive end, look for the Razorbacks to attack Mayer’s average defensive ability by putting him in mismatches against Nick Smith Jr. or Anthony Black.

Others to watch

(Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski – USA TODAY Sports)

Coleman Hawkins

  • Junior – Forward – 6’10”

  • 9.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.0 SPG

  • Versatile stretch four, decent rebounder, good rim protector and defender

Jayden Epps

  • Freshman – Guard – 6’2″

  • 9.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 41.8 FG%, 30.3 3PT%

  • Very good scorer, can create shots, undersized defender, struggles against bigger guards

Dain Dainja 

  • Sophomore – Forward – 6’9″

  • 9.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 63.7 FG%, 52.6 FT%

  • Traditional undersized post player, skilled low-post player, struggles at the free throw line, solid defender

Keys to an Arkansas win

(Photo by Randy Sartin – USA TODAY Sports)

Most importantly, Arkansas has to play a complete game. 40 full minutes. Illinois has come back from double-digit deficits to beat a ranked team three different times this season, and they nearly beat No. 1 seed Purdue after trailing by 24 points.

Illinois is never out of the game no matter how big the deficit is. Arkansas has shown they can blow huge second half leads with ease. It’s not a great recipe if you’re a Razorback fan. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of reasons to believe that Arkansas can win on Thursday.

Illinois doesn’t have a true point guard on in their rotation, making them very turnover-prone at times. Arkansas has the backcourt size, with [autotag]Devo Davis[/autotag], [autotag]Nick Smith Jr.[/autotag] and [autotag]Anthony Black[/autotag], to be able to make it a long night for the Illini’s go-to scoring options at guard – Terrence Shannon and Jayden Epps. [autotag]Jordan Walsh[/autotag] has the size and versatility to keep Matthew Mayer at bay and make things tough on him as well. The Razorbacks will need to be aggressive and pressure Illinois’ backcourt into forcing turnovers.

As I mentioned earlier, Illinois is a great defensive team due to their length and athleticism. They are particularly disruptive in the half-court. Arkansas needs to commit to attacking the basket and not settle for those low-percentage outside jumpers.

Turnovers will play a big role in deciding the outcome of this game. As I just mentioned, the Illini’s size can shrink the floor and cause a lot of trouble for Arkansas – similar to what we saw in the second half against Texas A&M. The Razorbacks have to take care of the ball and can’t afford to give up 6-0 or 8-0 runs off of careless turnovers.

If Arkansas is able to do all of this, then there’s no doubt that they should be able to advance to the second round. It should be a very close, nerve-racking game that comes down to the wire, but the Razorbacks have the talent to walk out with a huge win on Thursday.

Story originally appeared on Razorbacks Wire