Just two players on the 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks’ roster have played in the NCAA Tournament before, and that experience is going to be much-needed for Thursday’s matchup against a 9-seed Illinois team that has a roster of guys who have played in the postseason.
Junior guard Davonte Davis and senior forward Kamani Johnson were the only two returning players for the Hogs entering this season, and both have been along for the ride during two straight Elite Eight runs.
While Johnson was not eligibile during the 2021 postseason and he played a very limited role in 2022, Davis was a key piece for the Razorbacks both years.
Davis averaged just under 31 minutes, 7.8 points and three rebounds per game for Arkansas during last season’s four NCAA Tournament games. As a freshman in 2021, the Jacksonville native played some of the best basketball of his Razorback career, averaging 33.8 minutes, 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in four tourney games.
To not only have experience in the tournament, but to have had a high-level of success on the biggest stage will benefit Davis and allow him to teach the younger guys.
“I think just going in knowing that the game is not going to be easy,” Davis said. “You have to fight for it. It’s win or go home. It’s a lot of teams that are not playing right now. I know a lot of dudes that are on teams that are not playing right now and it’s not a good feeling.
“They talk to me about their season and how it feels. I don’t want, not just me, but the guys that may not be coming back to feel the way they are after like ending the season that could be history of the University of Arkansas. We’re just going to try as hard as we can to continue to play on.”
The only newcomer for Arkansas that has experience playing in the NCAA Tournament is Ricky Council IV, who played nine minutes and didn’t score as a freshman in Wichita State’s first round exit against Drake in the 2021 postseason.
“Of course, they don’t know what to expect,” Davis said of his teammates. “Even some of the new guys haven’t been in this position to be going to March Madness. I talked to them and told them it’s going to be fun, but it’s also going to be tough, hard-nosed basketball. Hopefully we get to prep right after this and start getting to work.”
Arkansas will need to get prepped and ready quickly, as it is taking on an Illinois team that has plenty of players with postseason experience. Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannnon Jr. played five tournament games with the Red Raiders and Matthew Mayer competed in 10 NCAA Tournament contests with Baylor, where he also won a national championship in 2021.
The trio of Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez and Luke Goode have all also seen NCAA Tournament action with Illinois.
“They’re a good team,” freshman Anthony Black said. “They’re long. They can shoot the ball. They’ve got some shot-blockers and talented upperclassmen. A couple transfers from the Big 12 who are good players. They’re a good team, and we have to get a good game plan in and come out ready.”
Even though they are less experience, the Razorbacks are loaded with young talent in Black, Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh, along with transfers such as Council, the Mitchell twins and Jalen Graham that bring value.
After playing a grueling SEC schedule that featured matchups against seven teams that earned an NCAA Tournament bid — Tennessee, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky and Auburn — the Razorbacks are very much battle-tested.
“You look at our schedule overall in the SEC, it was as difficult as any conference schedule in all of college basketball,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “Then you add in the fact who we played at the end. Really hard games, even the two games that we played in the SEC Tournament. I mean, we played two teams that are now in the NCAA Tournament. So our team has been challenged all year and we’ll be challenged against a team like Illinois, as well.”
While there is still a question of how the Hogs will perform on the big stage in the Big Dance, there is no question that they have confidence they can compete with anyone.
“(We’re) real confident,” Black said. “We’ve got the talent, the coaching and now we’ve just got to put it all together. We’ve shown what we can do against the top teams. Even if we haven’t won the games, we’ve been pretty competitive in almost every game this season. It’s going to be about putting it all together at the right time and making a run.”
Having been on two straight runs, Davis said he believes the team is ready for the task at hand.
“Once you get to the Elite Eight, of course I’ve been there, and it’s not about the body blows and things like that at that point,” Davis said. “You’ve got to sometimes put it in God’s hands, you know, because everybody is exhausted when it gets to that point. And I think I can say that we will be ready for sure for whatever is coming ahead of us.”
Arkansas and the Illini will tipoff at 3:30 p.m. CT inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. The game will be televised on TBS.