When it’s time to make your March Madness selections, the toughest decisions come down to the 8-9 matchup. This year’s meeting between Arkansas and Illinois is no exception.
In what should be one of the most competitive games of the first round, the Razorbacks and Fighting Illini are two evenly matched teams.
Arkansas began the year ranked as high as 10th, while Illinois came in at 23rd. Neither team was ranked in the top 25 at season’s end, but both schools have plenty of talent to make noise in the NCAA Tournament.
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The Razorbacks are led by two NBA prospects, Anthony Black and Nick Smith Jr. The Fighting Illini are powered by two transfers, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer.
Which team will prevail and advance to a likely matchup against No. 1 seed Kansas? The Sporting News takes a deeper look at the matchup.
Arkansas vs. Illinois odds
Arkansas vs. Illinois will tip on the first day of the Round of 64, Thursday, March 16. The Razorbacks have opened as slight favorites, according to odds from BetMGM. Below, you can find odds and details about the first-round matchup, including its time, date and TV channel.
- Odds: Arkansas -2.5
- Date: Thursday, March 16
- Time: 4:30 p.m. ET
- TV: TBS
- Arena: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
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Arkansas (20-13, 8-9 SEC)
The Razorbacks were projected to be one of the best teams in the country with a loaded freshman recruiting class. Then the injury bug hit.
NBA prospect Nick Smith Jr. missed the start of the season — and multiple games throughout the year — with a nagging knee injury. Sophomore standout Trevon Brazile went down with a season-ending torn ACL. As a result, Arkansas was forced to adjust.
That allowed another NBA prospect to emerge, with freshman guard Anthony Black looking like a projected top-10 pick in 2023. The Razorbacks had their moments where they looked like the team they were expected to be, but continuity has not been on their side.
With Smith shaking off the rust this late in the season, Arkansas could be a dangerous team in the tournament.
- NET ranking: 21
- KenPom ranking: 20
- Quad 1 record: 4-10
- Quad 2 record: 4-2
- Quad 3 record: 10-1
- Quad 4 record: 2-0
- Offensive efficiency ranking: 51
- Defensive efficiency ranking: 16
Anthony Black, G, Fr. (6-7, 198): 12.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.0 spg
Nick Smith Jr., G, Fr. (6-5, 185): 14.0 ppg, 2.0 apg, 1.8 rpg, 0.9 spg
Ricky Council IV, G, Jr. (6-6, 205): 15.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg
Makhi Mitchell, F, Sr. (6-9, 230): 7.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 1.2 apg
Jordan Walsh, F, Fr. (6-7, 205): 7.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.0 spg
Illinois (20-12, 11-9 Big Ten)
It was never going to be easy for Illinois to replace Kofi Cockburn, one of the greatest players in school history. With other key players graduating or transferring, this year’s Fighting Illini team is drastically different from the one that lost in the second round of last year’s tournament.
Now led by transfer portal acquisitions Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer, Illinois will try to make an unexpected March Madness run.
Shannon, a Texas Tech transfer, has excelled under head coach Brad Underwood, averaging 17.1 points per game. Mayer, a Baylor transfer and 2022 national champion, picked up right where he left off by averaging 12.8 points per game.
Can Illinois advance out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year?
- NET ranking: 34
- KenPom ranking: 33
- Quad 1 record: 2-11
- Quad 2 record: 7-1
- Quad 3 record: 4-0
- Quad 4 record: 7-0
- Offensive efficiency ranking: 58
- Defensive efficiency ranking: 32
Terrence Shannon Jr., G, Sr. (6-6, 210): 17.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.3 spg
Coleman Hawkins, F, Jr. (6-10, 200): 9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.0 spg
Matthew Mayer, G, Sr. (6-9, 225): 12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 1.2 apg
Jayden Epps, G, Fr. (6-2, 190): 9.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.5 apg
Dain Dainja, F, Soph. (6-9, 270): 9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Arkansas vs. Illinois prediction
Arkansas is the pick here. The Razorbacks are just as good as the Fighting Illini on defense and it’s questionable whether Illinois can keep up with Arkansas on offense.
Even though their offensive efficiency ranking is very close — Arkansas at 51 and Illinois at 58 — the Razorbacks are a different team with a (relatively) healthy Smith.
Smith was once projected to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft before a knee injury forced him to miss all but 12 games this season. He finally looked like himself over the last few weeks of conference play, going for 24 or more points in four of his last five games.
Shannon — a first-team All-Big Ten selection — will likely draw that matchup and he’ll have to be at his best to slow down the future pro. Will he be able to maintain that intensity on defense while also leading Illinois’ offense?
The answer to that question will likely be one of the keys to the game.
History of 8 vs. 9 matchups in NCAA Tournament
The 8-9 matchup is historically one of the biggest “coin flip” selections of the NCAA Tournament. Eight-seeds have a slight advantage over 9-seeds with a 76-72 record all time. Last year, however, only one 8-seed won its first-round matchup against the 9-seed.
Below is the recent history of 9-seeds upsetting 8-seeds in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
|2022||Memphis 64, Boise State 53|
|TCU 69, Seton Hall 42|
|Creighton 72, San Diego State 69|
|2021||Wisconsin 85, UNC 62|
|2019||UCF 73, VCU 58|
|Baylor 78, Syracuse 69|
|Oklahoma 95, Ole Miss 72|
|Washington 78, Utah State 61|
|2018||Alabama 86, Virginia Tech 83|
|Kansas State 69, Creighton 59|
|Florida State 67, Missouri 54|
|2017||Michigan State 78, Miami 58|
|2016||Butler 71, Texas Tech 61|
|Providence 70, USC 69|
|Uconn 74, Colorado 67|
|2014||Pittsburgh 77, Colorado 48|
|2013||Temple 76, NC State 72|
|Wichita State 73, Pittsburgh 55|
|2012||Saint Louis 61, Memphis 54|
|2011||Illinois 73, UNLV 62|
|2010||Wake Forest 81, Texas 80|
|Northern Iowa 69, UNLV 66|
|2009||Siena 74, Ohio State 72|
|Texas A&M 79, BYU 66|