NCAA Tournament Preview: Illinois vs Arkansas

Illinois gets set to compete in their 3rd straight NCAA Tournament on Thursday against Arkansas. The Razorbacks come into the Tournament off back-to-back Elite Eight runs.

Tip Off: Thursday March 16th, 2023 – 3:30 PM CT
Venue: Wells Fargo Center – Des Moines, IA

Let’s get into the matchup:

Both of these teams had really high hopes at the beginning of the year, but also had a lot of new faces. Illinois ranks just 293rd in experience (KenPom). Coleman Hawkins was really the only returner who saw significant time last year. As for Arkansas, they rank 363rd in experience and have three McDonalds All-American freshmen in Nick Smith Jr, Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh.

These teams are really similar. Guys who haven’t played enough together, both have shot it poorly from three (the two red highlighted areas in the table above) and both are very dangerous in transition.

Strength Against Strength

The Razorbacks take 41% of their shots at the rim (35th highest % in the country). They score 1.24 points per possession on those shots (18th best in the country). However, they rank outside the top 200 in all other shot types (Post Ups/Mid-range/3’s)!

As for the Illini, they rank #1 in the country in defensive points per possession on shots at the rim (1.08)! They also ranked #2 in the country in blocks per game at 5.7! This game will be won at the rim.

With both teams looking to run in transition, limiting turnovers will be key. Both these teams can turn it over at times too; almost identical turnover percentages (ILL 18.2%, ARK 18.3%). But arguably the biggest area that will determine the winner is at the 3-point line. I’d argue the winner of this game could come down to who settles for less 3’s. Or even who takes less threes. Check out Arkansas’ last 10 games below:

I included how many 3’s Arkansas attempted and how many 3’s their opponent attempted in each game. What you’ll notice is when Arkansas shoots more 3’s than their opponent, they lose. When they shoot less 3’s than their opponent, they win. This fits with what we know about how good they are attacking the rim, but poor everywhere else.

The yellow highlighted games show where this “shoot less 3’s” logic was true. The only two that didn’t fit were against Alabama (who shoots more 3’s per game than anyone else in the tournament) and Georgia, which was a blowout win.

Removing those two games, the Razorbacks were 0-5 when they shot more 3’s than their opponents and 3-0 when they did not.

With Illinois’ strength defending around the basket, it should give them an advantage and hopefully force more midrange and 3’s from Arkansas. Illinois has gotten 3-point happy at times this year and I hope we don’t see that on Thursday. The more aggressive team will win this game, I’m hoping that will be the Illini.

Published by Will McClaughry

Sports fan, data enthusiast and former division 3 college basketball player

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